‘Great day for it,’ called Sally, as she turned sausages on the BBQ.
It was perfect weather for the annual fair. Clear, dazzling blue skies, the sun warmed her skin as Lucy moved through the grassy pathways, holding Charlotte’s hand. The park was crammed with families, couples and young people orbiting the paths that led to the rides and stalls. The fair was always well-attended, but numbers were higher this year, Lucy estimated. They were making a killing. The coffee stand and food trucks were close to selling out.
This year, the fair was Lucy’s responsibility.
‘Any idiot can organise it and make a profit,’ she had been told during handover, days after last year’s fair, by the outgoing chair, Melanie. Lucy had been excited to plan and lead the group of keen volunteers.
Melanie passed over a three-ring binder, full of spreadsheets and contact details. ‘All yours,’ Melanie had said, complete with her smug-as-fuck smile.
Lucy wanted to smack the smirk off her face. Instead, she vowed to herself that she’d make her first fair the best yet, increase the profit margin by thirty percent. That would show Melanie and her gang of self-satisfied, fake-blonde, augmented snoots.
Today, she walked countless laps of the park with Charlotte chatting by her side. They checked on the stall holders, asked if they needed additional help, or stock brought from the kitchen, and importantly, they whisked the takings back to base, to be counted and locked in the safe.
The sun was high in the sky when Lucy realised Charlotte was lost. She couldn’t remember her hand slipping away. Lucy turned back, retraced her steps through the park. She bent down, too many legs were in her view. Charlotte was nowhere to be seen. Panic swirled inside Lucy’s gut, rose up, threatening to erupt; she found a bin just as the bile shot out of her mouth.
Passers-by stared, aghast. Lucy looked up, wiped her mouth, ‘Help! My daughter is lost!’ Her heart plummeted to the stony path as she watched two couples walk away, shaking their heads.
She grabbed her mobile, her breath coming in short, ragged gasps. Someone touched her shoulder.
‘Excuse me, miss?’ the stranger asked.
Lucy spun around, smacked into the stranger’s chest. ‘I’m sorry,’ she offered, looking up.
The man held her arms. ‘I couldn’t help but overhear. Your daughter is lost?’
Lucy nodded, tears streamed down her cheeks. Her sobs turned to howling, snot flew out of her nose. She wiped her nose with her sleeve, at the same time as he proffered a handkerchief.
‘Can I help you look for her? What’s her name?’
‘Charlotte. She’s six. Blonde hair, about this tall,’ Lucy held up her hand level with her chest. She went on to explain that they’d been wandering the park. She was in charge. She must have become distracted.
‘Come this way. Sit.’ He offered her a bottle of water. ‘Drink this in short sips. My name is Gavin, by the way.’
She gulped half the bottle of water.
‘There must be a PA system?’ Gavin asked.
‘Yes, at the large awning, in the centre of the park. Ask for Bill, tell him I’ve sent you and Charlotte is lost.’ Lucy sobbed the last words.
‘Stay here. Under no circumstances are you to move away from here. Understand?’ Gavin nodded his head, as if by that simple act, he could get Lucy to agree.
Gavin took off in the direction of the centre stage. Lucy sat, slumped in the seat, her eyes lowered. She could see only the feet and shins of those passing by.
‘Well, look who’s having a rest.’
The voice was familiar, but Lucy, in her state, couldn’t place it. The shoes were Gucci sneakers, with gold studs at the back. Melanie. Lucy looked up to confirm; her worst nightmare was glaring down at her.
‘You know, in the seven years I ran this fair, I never had time to sit and sip water. Did I girls?’ Melanie glanced around to her posse, who all dipped their heads in a benign, robotic show of assent.
‘Just fuck off, Melanie,’ Lucy spat, through tears. ‘You don’t know what’s going on.’
‘You mean Charlotte?’ Melanie asked, her voice dripping with fake innocence. ‘She’s missing, isn’t she?’
‘What do you know? Where is she?’
‘Aren’t you her mother? Shouldn’t you know where she is?’ Melanie smiled, showing all her whitened, straightened teeth. The smile did not reach her eyes; they were cold, dead. ‘I ran this fair for seven years. Very well, I might add. And I never lost any of my children.’
Melanie’s posse chuckled their agreement. The PA announcement came through at that moment, asking everyone at the fair to look for Charlotte, explaining her height, age, and what she was wearing.
Lucy’s heart pushed hard against her chest. She didn’t remember telling Gavin what Charlotte was wearing. She ran to the centre tent to find him. She burst inside, darting around the people gathered there.
‘Gavin!’ she shouted. ‘Gavin?’
Bill walked up to her. ‘A gentleman named Gavin has been here, instructing us to put the message out about Charlotte. When did you lose her?’
She winced at the words. Like her daughter was a balloon and she foolishly let go of the string. She wanted to cry again, but had to stay focussed. ‘No time for that Bill. Call the police. Where is Gavin?’
‘He said he was returning to you.’
Lucy flew back into the park, glanced around the throng. She took in the streets around the park, the main street especially. A tram rambled by. A red car, a Golf, it looked like from her vantage point, roared off overtaking the tram. She could make out the letters on the number plate: UQB.
‘Bill, tell the police to look for a red VW Golf, number plate Uniform Quebec Bravo. I couldn’t see the numbers. I think Gavin’s taken Charlotte.’