On the Southbank, in among the Carousel with its galloping horses and lurid colours, a woman runs up and down the concrete, calling for her child. I stop and watch as she searches the stairs, the benches, the crowds and faces, examining the same places, but seeing nothing but absence. ‘Louisa,’ she shouts. ‘Louisa.’ But the tinny circus music muffles all sound, ridicules her anguish, and gets into my mind.
The woman is paralysed in a loop of searching, stopping and opening her arms, as if her child has slipped right through. ‘She was here,’ she says. ‘Just here.’
‘What does she look like?’ I ask.
She stares at me with blank eyes. ‘She’s small,’ she says, holding her hand waist-height. ‘She has curly hair.’
‘Is she wearing a coat?’
She looks down at her empty arms. ‘Yes, a coat,’ she said. ‘It’s blue.’
She turns in a circle, stares at her feet, looks up at me with disbelief. ‘She was here,’ she says again. ‘Just here.’
The woman goes back to her path, with fists clenched and tensed shoulders, in among the mothers, and their children with ice-cream-smudged faces, who stop and stare. I search with her, for a child who is lost, frightened, crying. I hear the beat of my heart as I train my eye on curly hair, the colour blue, and I too feel the heat in my cheeks, the world around me as it narrows. The crowd rushes past, too fast. The horses keep galloping, the music still playing. Time doesn’t stop.
The woman finds her daughter. When I return she’s holding her in her arms, kissing and crying, muttering words of relief and love, as she rocks from side to side. The girl stares impassively over her mother’s shoulder, and points at the merry-go-round and the lurid lights, the children who pass by with swirly white ice-creams in their hands.