Here we are, the three of us, at Regent’s Park Zoo. It’s an unseasonably balmy day, and consequently, the place reeks of eye-wateringly concentrated urine and animal glands, which are beginning to give me a migraine. I’m on my best behaviour, and so is Alistair. If anyone had been doing a photographic documentary, I don’t think our faces would have revealed a trace of what we were really thinking.
Snap. Inside the monkey house, I grin and do ape poses. I am thinking of Gavin’s face on the pillow beside me, bathed in early morning sunlight.
Snap. The three of us crammed onto the little train which skirts the perimeter of the zoo. Alistair is thinking of what excuse he can come up with to get away to meet Constanza.
Snap. I am looking through the transparent barrier of the polar bear enclosure, watching the bears tumble and splash in the pool. Don’t those big bears ever feel confined in such a small space?
Snap. We watch a hippo and her baby rolling around in mud. Such an idyllic life, I think. I had that once. I think I also had, surprise, surprise, spontaneity. It’s all coming back to me now. Before the massive mortgage, Alistair’s long hours, the accumulation of antiques, designer clothes, nanny and child, Alistair would often phone me on Friday afternoon at work and surprise me with tickets for the weekend to
“Do you ever think of just jetting off on our own one weekend? Like we used to before we had Ivy? I mean, why shouldn’t we, now that we have Constanza?”
“Because I can’t. With this job, I can’t just bugger off whenever I fancy. I need to be accessible to my clients, around the clock. I thought you understood that.”
I’m crushed with disappointment, but smile anyway. “I do. Of course I do. It’s just that sometimes I can’t help but look back at the way we were. Once we were happy with nothing, with just each other and a rented apartment.”
“I’m happy now. Aren’t you?”
“I suppose so, only, don’t you ever wish our lives could be simpler?“
”Actually, that’s something I’ve been thinking about for some time,” he said, rather ominously. I’m about to ask him to clarify what he means, but Ivy’s clamouring to be put up on his shoulders, so I hold my tongue.
Snap. Ivy sits on Alistair’s shoulders, the purple rubber boots she’s insisted on wearing bounce against his chest.
Snap. Alistair takes a call. He shows no emotion as he talks on the phone, the sly dog. Although he tells me he is needed urgently at work, I’m pretty sure the call was from his mistress.
Snap. While Alistair exits the zoo, Ivy throws a tantrum, hurling herself to the ground. I shout at her to get up. She pounds the dusty earth with her fists. In this photo you’d definitely be able to see how I’m feeling: fed up with Ivy’s behaviour, angry at Alistair and generally on the verge of crying.
At this point I’d have had to ask the photographer to leave, because my migraine has kicked in and I’m feeling like someone is drilling a hole through my left eye socket. Then, to top it all, it starts to drizzle. I say, let’s go. Ivy doesn’t want to leave. Soon it’s bucketing down, and everyone’s running out of the zoo. Ivy splashes her way through puddles, enthusiastically splattering herself with mud. Eventually I manage to grab her hand and drag her into the SUV.
We’d been driving for about five minutes, when the pain inside my head grew more intense. If I can just get home, I thought, and lie down in a dark room, then maybe I can stop this pain, this throbbing, stinging pain.
“I’m hungry!” Ivy said, kicking at the back of my seat.
“Darling, can you please stop doing that,” I said through clenched teeth. The thought of muddy foot prints on the back of my seat caused a tiny flare of pain to start tunnelling its way into my right temple.
“I’m hungry.” Kick. Kick. Kick.
Now I had, at last, reached
“I will get you a Mars Bar, but first you must be quiet,” I said, spying a pharmacy across the street. Then I parked the car, switched off the engine, and for reasons that now escape me, decided to leave my key in the ignition, and Ivy in the car.
Dashing across the busy road, I almost managed to get myself run over. Now, standing on the pavement in front of the pharmacy, I noticed that the migraine was blurring my vision. The orange lettering of the poster in the window appeared to be made up of fuzzy caterpillars, which were wriggling before my eyes.
Inside the shop, things only got worse. When I narrowed my eyes, attempting to locate a Mars Bar, the pain inside my head intensified. The lettering on the chocolate bars was dancing about and I couldn’t seem to focus. Finally, I lost my patience. Grabbing a random selection, I went up to pay. I was astonished that the price of three chocolate bars came to almost fifteen pounds, but who was I to quibble? I never bought chocolate. For all I knew, that was the going rate these day. I popped two migraine pills I’d found in my wallet, grabbed the plastic bag full of chocolate, and dashed across the road to my car.
My fingers slithered wetly in the door handle. It was locked.
Crouching down and wiping rain from the window, I squinted my eyes into the dim interior. Despite the fact that my vision was still playing tricks on me, I was pretty sure Ivy was gone.
I stood up and gazed into the rush of traffic, and found myself absorbed in the zoom of cars, the squelches of tires navigating wet ground. It was similar to the sense of detachment I’d experienced a couple of years ago on holiday, when my bag had been tugged from my hands at a crowded Florentine flower market. Only gradually did it begin to register, that this was a thousand times worse than losing a bunch of travellers’ checks and credit cards.
Forcing myself not to panic, I started walking briskly down
Mercifully, the pills had started to work and my vision was returning to normal. I peered down the dark, glistening street, into the soft glow of restaurants, hopeful for a glimpse of her pink t-shirt and white shorts.
My shirt was sodden and stuck to my chest, and as I continued to trudge along, hope seeped out of me, to be replaced by a general sense of desperation. Where was she? Had she been run over, picked up by a passing paedophile? Or had she turned down a side street and was now heading, who knew where, wet and cold and sobbing?
The thought prompted me to start exploring the back streets. Further and further I roamed, until I glimpsed a blue light shining through the rain, which was still coming down heavily. As I stood outside the police station, I knew my time was up. There was nothing for it but to go in and face the music.
What I hadn’t reckoned on was literally facing the music. Entering the warm, brightly lit waiting area, I looked around at the half dozen uniformed police sitting on a semi-circle of chairs and singing their hearts out. One guy strummed a guitar, while the others sang a song I recognized as one of The Wiggles’ finest.
“Go Captain Go! Go Captain Go! Go Captain Feathersword, Ahoy!” they bellowed, as I walked towards the counter and rang the bell. When no one appeared, I turned to the singing cops and shouted, “I need to report a missing person.”
The guitar player, ruddy faced and shaven headed, stopped playing, as the singing skidded to a halt.
“All right, madam. No need to raise your voice,” he said. “We’re not deaf.”
“Hey, why’d you stop the music?” said a girl’s voice from beneath his seat.
As I looked down between his legs, I saw a curly blond head emerging. When Ivy saw me, she looked devastated.
“Oh. You found me.”
“This isn’t a game of hide and seek,” I snapped, pulling her out from between his polished black boots. “I was worried about you.” I bent down and pulled her into my arms. “Are you all right?”
“Of course I am. This place is amazing. They’ve been singing all my favourite songs, and they’ve shown me how to work handcuffs and—“
“You’ve got a nerve, waltzing in here as if it were no big deal to abandon a kid.”
I straightened up, and found myself looking straight into the eyes of a police woman who was in desperate need of an eyebrow pluck. “When we picked her up she was wet through. Not even a coat on her!”
“That’s because it’s been warm all day. I didn’t think it was necessary.”
“She told us her Mum had rushed into a pharmacy because she needed chocolate.”
“But the chocolate was for her!”
Ivy took the bag from me and pulled out a multicoloured bar. “Wow, thanks Mum,” she said, peering at it. ‘Fruit flavoured condoms,’ she read out, hesitantly. Is this a new kind of chocolate?”
“Give me that,” I said, grabbing the box of condoms out of her hands. “That’s a mistake. There’ll be a chocolate bar in here somewhere.” But when I searched through my haul, there were only boxes of flavoured, lubricated and rainbow coloured condoms. The police woman was giving me a very dirty look. “I can explain. My migraine was making it impossible to see, and—“
“I’ve read about people like you,” she said, planting her hands on her hips. “Sex addicts who’ll do anything, risk anything, to get their fix. What were you thinking? Leaving the keys in the ignition. What if she’d released the parking brake and the car had rolled out into the road? Did you think of that, when you ran off to buy contraceptives? What were you going to do next, leave her outside a bar while you trawled it for a one night stand?”
I started to laugh. “If you knew anything about me, you’d know that the idea of me being a sex addict is just plain ridiculous.”
“You know what I think?” she said, this time in a more sympathetic voice. “I think this is a cry for help. I’ve been a member of AA for seven years, and I know an addict when I see one.”
“Look,” I said, taking a deep breath. “I know what I did was irresponsible, but it’ll never happen again, and now, if you don’t mind, I’d really like to get my daughter home.”
“Well, all right,” she said, handing me my car keys. “I won’t press any charges, on the condition you contact your local Sex Addicts Anonymous as soon as you get home.”
“Fine, I’ll do that,” I said, grabbing the keys from her.
“Do we have to go?” Ivy whined.
“Yes, I’m afraid we do.”
As I slunk out of the police station, I was full of remorse. I was a terrible mother, the worst.
Once we were driving home, Ivy started kicking my seat again. After everything that had happened, I didn’t dare tell her off.
“I want you to know that I still love you Mummy,” she said, “even though you abandoned me.”
“Thank you,” I said, bursting into tears.