A few years ago, I found a lost child in a shopping mall.
(First published in The Eclectic, June 2010)
It’s just another day in the mall. A bustle of people, queues outside kiosks selling mobile phone covers, mums pushing prams, groups of young toughs wearing baggy jeans.
I’ve picked up some useless stuff, picture frames, a trellis, a mini- stone pagoda for the garden, you know, those things you don’t need but you buy. A small child, barely three feet high, a red sweater with wispy straw hair, brushes past fleetingly but I forget her as soon as cashier asks me for my PIN.
I head out of the store towards the elevators and there she is again. She has a couldn’t-care -less patter, not so much a walk than a newly found way to move forwards on tiptoes without falling over.
She’s going in to random shops, Gap, Body Shop, H and M, just briefly and coming out. She’s looking for someone.
Now I’m concerned. I’d rather not be though for l’m carrying several shopping bags. I would rather just go to the carpark and drop this stuff off, but instead I keep my eye on the child. Then I follow her. Her pitter-patter walk is quick and fast for someone so small and purposeful for someone so lost. It is a conspicuous strut but no one except me notices. Her diminutive stature amongst the forest of people and bags makes her invisible in the sense that you cannot see her if you are not looking for her.
It seems she’s heading out of the mall and i have to quicken my pace to keep up. I reach her just before the exit and crouch down in front of her. She stops matter-of-factly, and looks at me wide-eyed. She’s not surprised though and my presence doesn’t fluster her. Her face is grubby, but her eyes are ice-bright.
Where’s your mummy? I ask.
Where’s your mummy? she says back. She’s not enquiring, she’s just repeating me. She mumbles something, baby talk, a string of unintelligible words a two-year-old says that sound like they should mean something, but somehow they don’t cross that border to coherence.
I feel like picking her up and taking her back to the shop and to shout out for her mum. Is this anyone’s child? But I don’t, thank God for that – in the commotion I have more sense but less courage.
I point back to the mall so that she won’t stray outside and say to her that her mum is probably inside and beckon her but instead of following me, her jingle-jangle walk starts again and I find myself following her fast steps.
A sudden feeling of extreme self-consciousness overcomes me. What am I doing following a two year old? Trying to help sure, but no one knows that. Do they? Here I am a lone man, a stranger, following a child around.
I feel the glare of the red light of CCTV camera located high above me. I feel observed like someone’s watching me. I shouldn’t care. Do the right thing. I realise how this must look but I can’t leave her now, l’m involved. Her safety suddenly is now my concern, but not only that it becomes a necessity for me, for she is not the only person at risk now. Now, I am too.
I rush to into a frozen food store and get the attention of an elderly security guard with a trusty, wrinkled face under a peaked cap. I point out the girl, now scurrying away, back on a incessant, high-tempo wandering search. He’s going to organise an announcement on the tannoy system. Keep an eye on her. He heads off. And then what?
A silver-haired lady carting a shopping trolley, an eaves- dropper and Good Samaritan, comes with me too.
We catch up with the child and crouching ask her, “Where’s your mummy?”. “Which shop was she last in?”. “What’s your name?”
The girl is in safe hands now surely. The tannoy announcement blares out a garbled message.
I’m torn, sure I can melt away now but I want to see the little girl’s happily-ever-after to see the expression of relief on her mum’s face, her tears of joy when she sees her daughter again. But at that stage I leave. I reason a) I’m late for lunch b) she can do a better job anyway/ she knows the right things to say to the little girl/ probably has a grand daughter and c) it doesn’t look odd if an old lady is speaking to the little girl.
I never did find out about what happened to the little girl in the red sweater and straw hair that I found that day; there is just a line of question-marks devoid of satisfactory closure. I like to think that the security guard’s announcement didn’t go unheeded, that the old lady with the shopping trolley managed to keep up with the girl just long enough for her mum to hear the announcement and come running, to meet and hug her and to learn never to take her eyes off her little girl again.
It’s a logical sequence of events which probably did happen. But was there something missing from me and how I behaved? My shortcomings as the events unfolded without seeing them through. It’s a knowledge that leaves me wondering who it was that was really lost that day. For like the little girl, perhaps l was lost too.
Submitted for the daily prompt word ‘missing’