I’m in a store and the cashier has just finished scanning my goods as I hand her my credit card. I’ve picked up some useless stuff – non-stick pans, garden ornaments, mini-stone pagoda – you know things you don’t need, but you buy. A small child barely two feet high wearing a short sleeved denim-blue shirt with straw-dry short hair brushes past my legs fleetingly but I forget her as soon as the cashier asks me for my PIN.It’s just another Saturday morning in a busy shopping mall in London. A bustle of people, queues, kiosks selling mobile phone covers, mums pushing prams, kids with i-Pod wires dripping from their ear lobes, young toughies in baggy jeans and branded trainers.
I head out of the store towards the lifts but there she is again. This time I notice her for her walk is a jangly walk, like a pitter-patter, couldn’t-care-less, uncoordinated walk. She goes in to shop after shop, going in and coming out. It is then that I realise that she is looking for someone – she is a lost child.
I keep my eye on her, follow her. I’m not sure why I do. I put it down to instinct, just normal instinct. I’d rather not though; I’m carrying a huge bag and am due to meet friends for lunch. I would rather just go to the car park but I stop and keep my eye on the child. Then I follow her. Her pitter-patter walk is surprisingly quick for someone so small. It is a conspicuous strut but no one except me notices.
Have you ever seen the film Schindler’s List, the small girl in the red dress – the only coloured image in the entire film? The girl walks all around the Jewish ghetto and no one notices her, her diminutive stature amongst the bustle of people makes her invisible in the sense that you cannot see her if you are not looking for her; I see this lost child in exactly the same way.
It seems she’s heading out of the mall and so I have to quicken my pace to keep up with her. I reach her just before she does and crouch down in front of her. She stops matter-of-factly, and looks at me wide-eyed. My presence doesn’t fluster her. Her face is grubby, but her eyes are bright.
“Where’s your mummy? Where’s your mummy?” I ask.
She looks at me. She is unflustered and mumbles something I can’t really understand. Some kind of baby talk, a string of unintelligible words a two-year-old says that sound like they should mean something, but somehow they don’t quite make that journey to coherence. I feel like picking her up and taking her back to the shop and shout out for her mum. But I don’t. Thank God I have more sense than that, more sense perhaps, but less courage.
I point back to the mall so that she won’t stray outside and say to her that her mum is most probably there. I beckon her but instead of following me, her jingle-jangle patter walk starts again and I find myself following her.
A sudden feeling of extreme self-consciousness overcomes me. What am I doing? Trying to help sure, but no one knows that. Here I am, a man in early middle age, on my own, following a toddler around. I feel the glare of the red light of CCTV camera located high above me on the ceiling. I feel observed for the first time. I now realise how this must look but I can’t leave her now, I am involved. Her safety suddenly becomes a necessity for me, not just a moral imperative for she is not the only person at risk now. Now, I am too.
I panic. I rush to into a frozen food store and get the attention of an elderly security guard with trusting, wrinkled face and a Jamaican accent. I point the girl out to him who is now scurrying away back on an incessant wandering search. I tell him that the child is lost and he says he will organise an announcement on the mall’s announcer. He tells me to keep track of her. He heads off. A silver-haired lady holding a wheeled shopping trolley overhears our conversation. I point out the lost girl to her as well and together we run behind her. We catch up with her, crouch beside her and ask questions again. “Where’s your mummy?” “Which shop was she last in?” “What’s your name?”
Part of me wants to just walk away just to leave the situation there and then. The girl is in safe hands now surely, but I’m torn; sure I can melt away now but I want to see the little girl’s ‘happily ever after’, to hear the shout of relief on her mum’s face when she sees her daughter, but I feel uncomfortable; I’m fine with the situation, but I’m uncomfortable with what people may be thinking and so I decide to leave it in the hands of the old lady. She can do a better job than me, she knows the right things to say to the little girl and besides, it doesn’t look odd if an old lady is speaking to the little girl – not as odd as me asking her where her mother was.
I never did find out about what happened to the little girl in the denim blue shirt that I found that day; so there is just a line of question-marks devoid of satisfactory closure. I like to think that the Jamaican security guard got the announcement made in the shopping mall, that the old lady with the wheeled shopping trolley managed to keep the girl distracted long enough for her mum to hear the announcement and come running to meet and hug her. I hope they met up soon after I left and that her mum learned never to take her eye off her little girl again. It’s a logical sequence of events which probably did happen. What is less satisfactory are the shortcomings that I felt of myself as the events unfolded – I didn’t see them unfold to the end, I didn’t do what I really wanted to do, which was to see her safely back with her mum. It’s a knowledge that leaves me wondering who it was that was really lost that day. For like the little girl, perhaps I was too.
Loona Hazarika is a freelance writer based in London. This article was first published in Eclectic (June 2010 issue)