“Please,” he says, and I hear the desperation in his voice before I turn around. “Please, can you help me? I’ve lost my granddaughter. Please, can you help…?”
I remember the day that Alice disappeared in the supermarket; I remember the sick lurch of terror, the way I suddenly knew just how big the world really was. His glasses are askew on his nose, and his pupils have contracted to a point. I know this feeling far too well. Alice turned up in the toy aisle five minutes later, but they were the longest five minutes of my life.
“Okay,” I say. My voice is calm. “What does she look like? Where did you last see her?”
“She likes to feed the ducks,” he says. His eyes are red-rimmed; his skin is grey. “We were on the swings; I just turned away for a moment….”
“We’ll find her,” I tell him firmly. “What’s her name?”
“Rebecca,” he says. “Becky. She likes to feed the ducks. I only turned away for a moment….”
Becky. I imagine a dark-haired, serious-faced child, with rosebud lips that curl abruptly into the sort of smile that transforms a face, before I realise that I’m thinking of another girl, a long-forgotten friend from school. He’s scrolling through the photo album on his phone with shaking hands, and the girl who aims a chocolate-smeared grin at us out of a sunny summer’s garden is freckled, red-headed, barely four years old.
“Becky,” he says. “Oh God. I only turned away for a moment. I need to find her….”
My eyes glance involuntarily towards the pond: sleet grey, this winter morning, and tangled in weeds. It’s deeper than it looks, and, when the weather is good, you can see the thick, treacly mud that lines the bottom like tar. I always used to tell Alice to keep away from it when she was little — dangerous! Not for little girls; come with Mummy, please — because I remember being a little girl, and I remember being a little girl around water, and I don’t trust this pool. I won’t even let the dog go in to chase the ducks for scraps of bread. I can imagine far too easily what might happen next.
“We’ll find her,” I tell him again, and I wonder who I’m trying to reassure: her grandfather, or myself.
She was wearing a red raincoat, he tells me; her favourite. It clashes with her hair, but she won’t wear anything else. My eyes scan the horizon for a flash of crimson, but the day is pale grey and brown, and the park is deserted but for me and the dog, a leisurely couple walking hand-in-hand in the middle distance, and a man who’s lost a little girl. I start to move. Becky! I call. Becky! Grandad’s looking for you!
“She likes the ducks,” he says. His face is so pale that I want to ask him to sit down, take a breath, look after himself while I search for his grandchild. He hasn’t shaved this morning, I think, and he smells musty, disregarded, like a man who’s forgotten himself. He turns his head to call for her, and his voice is hoarse and fractured. “She likes to wander up to them and make duck noises. She likes it when they make noises back at her….”
Dangerous! I always used to tell Alice. She loved the ducks, too. She’s at college now, studying French and Spanish, and she’s forgotten how she used to love this little park, but I remember that her first word was side, for slide; that I brought her here for her first birthday and she cried when it was time to go home. And I remember, suddenly, with a flash of crystal clarity, the wreaths that decorated the landing pad on the far side of the pond a few years back; the story in the newspaper and the hushed voices of the walkers that I met on the paths. I remember the way I went home and rang my daughter just to tell her that I loved her, and how her voice was warm, undercurrents of amusement beneath the sincerity of her I love you too, Mum. And I wanted to pull her close and hold her to me, in that way that never really goes away, no matter how big and brave she gets; to hold her close and breathe in the scent of her hair and thank whatever caprice of fate kept my little girl with me when somebody else lost theirs.
And I look at him now: grey-faced and panting, eyes red-rimmed and glasses askew, and I realise that his stare is glassy and his expression is fixed. He’s sagging like a man who used to be big and just melted away, and there’s an elderly stain on his collar and his cuffs are frayed. He’s a man who looks as though he’s been lost for years.
And that’s when I remember the plaque, black letters on brass, pinned to the bench on which I was sitting when he found me:
In loving memory of Rebecca, who loved to feed the ducks.
“I just turned away for a minute,” he says brokenly, and his eyes drift out across the pond.
A native of Belfast, Northern Ireland, Rachael Kelly has a PhD in Film Studies and is currently working as a freelance writer and film critic. She writes science fiction as RB Kelly and contemporary and non-fiction as Rachael Kelly, and her debut novel, The Edge of Heaven, will be published in 2016. She’s @Rachael_B_Kelly on Twitter.