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Kate Hamer’s acclaimed debut novel “The Girl in the Red Coat” tells the story of the abduction of a little girl from the points of view of daughter and distraught mother. Hamer talks to Here & Now's Robin Young about tackling a subject that’s every parent’s nightmare.
By Kate Hamer
It will be like the day in the maze, I told myself. I’ll run round this field looking, scared witless, but we’ll find each other eventually.
The fog had grown cold and dense and I kept stumbling on empty plastic bottles and bumpy ground. ‘Carmel,’ I yelled at the top of my voice, ‘where are you?’
I kept yelling into the fog but it never answered. It just sucked up my voice into its blankness. I wanted more than anything to catch a glimpse of that red, like a poppy standing proud in a cornfield. But there was just a jumble of colour, made milky, as if looking through a wedding veil. I thought I’d go to the entrance and ask for help: an announcement on the tannoy. Or to the St John Ambulance in case she’d fallen over and was there right now having a plaster put on her knee while someone in uniform was saying, ‘All done. Now then, let’s find your mum.’
People were getting fed up and wanting to leave. The field was emptying, they were all at the entrance—a temporary arch made out of plywood with shapes cut into it to look like battlements—so I had to push past them. I knocked against the bodies without caring, muttering, ‘I’ve lost my little girl,’ over my shoulder to the ‘watch its.’ Several people asked if I was alright but I couldn’t stop to answer, I was too intent.
‘Carmel, where are you, where are you?’
The ticket offices next to the arch were empty, the organisers probably guessing that no one would arrive so late in the day, so I had to find my way back again, all the time shouting, ‘Carmel, Carmel,’ till my voice was hoarse.
I found my way back into the tent where I’d last seen her. It’s too soon, I told myself, it’s too soon to panic. Stop it. Stop it now.
The trestle table where she’d stood was half empty—many of the books sold. I’d had the idea of asking the man with the till if he’d seen her but there was nobody there now. The thought came to me that the remaining books left out like this could so easily be stolen.
‘Carmel,’ I called. ‘Where are you?’ A man put his hand on my arm. ‘What’s the matter, love?’ ‘My little girl. I can’t find her.’ I realised my eyes were wet and stopped for a moment this time. ‘Oh dear. Dear. You need to get to the main tent. They’ll help you. She’s probably waiting there for you.’ ‘Yes—thank you. Thank you. Where is it?’ ‘Ask one of the staff—they’ll tell you.’ I rubbed at my eyes.
‘Don’t worry, love,’ he said. ‘You’ll find her. Mine were always getting lost when they were young.’
I took his advice and went outside to look for staff. He’s right, I thought. There must be an official tent or a place for lost children. But the fog was lacing the air so now it was hard to see the tents any more. Panic gripped my insides again. Even among so many other people I started to feel alone in some kind of new and terrible reality.
What if, what if . . . I never see her again? No. No, not that. I stumbled, then righted myself. Stop thinking it. I tried to yell again but my voice had disappeared into a squeak and a sudden tide of terror washed over me. I reached out and wordlessly gripped a woman’s bright red sleeve. ‘Hey, get off,’ she said. ‘Get off me.’ She shook me off and got swallowed up into the fog.
Then one of the men on stilts walked right past me, his stilts close enough to touch. I could feel my voice re-gathering inside my throat in a shout—‘Please, help me. Help.’ I didn’t care any more what I said or if I sounded mad and frantic.
The stilts paused and started to move on so I shouted again and they stopped and the next minute a young man with cornrows all over his scalp had jumped down and was standing right next to me.
‘Did you ask for help?’ His clothes were made of patchwork and underneath the multi-coloured jacket his shoulders were strong, like he was active all day. I remembered the man with the cloth cap in the maze and I felt relief. The stilts man was part of the day, of the organisation. He could tell me where I needed to go.
‘My little girl, I’ve lost her,’ I said. ‘Where did you see her last?’ ‘In the place where they’re selling the books.’ ‘I bet a lot of people are getting lost in this. It’s bad luck it should happen today when we’ve been planning it for so long. A sea mist is always the worst. It must have been the hot weather this morning that brought it on.’
It made me feel a bit better when he said he expected lots of people were getting lost and separated, like this was just a mishap that would be sorted out.
‘I’ll take you to the admin tent and they can put a tannoy call out. You two’ll be glad to get home when you find her.’ Then he was guiding me across the field with his stilts tucked under his arm.
Inside the tent the fog had crept in and lay low on the ground so it got kicked up into little clouds as we walked. There was a woman with bright dyed red hair—the kind of red not even meant to look real—walking up and down and speaking into a walkie-talkie and I noticed a flap of brown paper had got stuck to the heel of her boot. Across the squashed grass of the floor people were packing things away in boxes.
The man in patchwork steered me up towards the red-haired walkie-talkie woman.
‘This lady has lost her daughter,’ he said. He went away and came back with a fold-up chair for me to sit on. But I didn’t want to sit down.
She looked up with sharp blue eyes and reluctantly re-sheathed the walkie-talkie in a leather holder on her belt that looked like it was meant for carrying guns.
‘I expect she’s just got lost in the crowds. How long is it since you’ve seen her?’ Silver flickered from her tongue as she spoke from the piercing there. She sounded like this losing of a daughter was nothing more than a pernickety nuisance and could be sorted out with a snap of her fingers—meaning she could get on with something more important.
I looked at my watch and with a burning spurt of real sickness in my throat I realised it must have been just over an hour.
‘Ages, an hour and a half. At least.’ I wanted to exaggerate because I sensed she wasn’t taking it seriously enough, that she didn’t have a daughter and thought that kids just ran off all the time.
She was shifting a foot around and suddenly became conscious of the paper stuck to her heel. With a movement like a ballerina she forked a leg behind her, holding her foot with one hand and peeling off the paper with the other.
When she was done she said, ‘I can put out an announcement.’
‘Please. Could you? Her name’s Carmel and she’s wearing a red duffel coat.’
‘How old is she?’ ‘She’s eight. Eight years old.’ So she walked off to where a tannoy system was set up on a trestle table and the man with cornrows looked at me with kind big eyes and said, ‘Don’t worry too much. It’s got a bit chaotic because of the weather.’ I nodded at him dumbly.
I heard an electric gasp as the machine was switched on and then the woman’s voice booming from the outside.
‘Public announcement. Lost child. There’s a lost child. Name of Carmel. Red coat. Eight years old. If you find a lost child please bring them to the large tent at the back of the field. Lost child . . .’
Mum’s voice turns sharp and cold like the fog. We cross the field to the biggest tent where they sell books. The fog comes in the tent with us like it really is smoke. There’s some thin rain too, the kind that gets you very wet, so everyone is coming inside. And I seem to be able to hear her better inside, exactly what her voice is saying: ‘Carmel, stay here. Stay so I can see you. I nearly lost sight of you then.’ When all I’ve been doing is stopping to look at books.
There’s tables piled high with them and she buys me a couple. While she’s paying I turn round and I’m facing the stomach of a man. I look up at his head and it’s the man from the tent and from the drawing again. He’s tall and old-fashioned in a way I can’t really explain. There’s nothing like a top hat or long hair or anything but he’s not quite the same as the other men around him, like he could have stepped out of olden times. He’s got on a white shirt very ironed and with no collar and a black rough suit. I smile up at him again but he’s gone.
I turn round back to Mum and she’s taking a plastic bag of books from the lady behind the stall.
But even inside she wants to hold my hand tight, tight every second. That’s OK at first but if I want to stop at a stall and hold a book it’s annoying.
‘Look.’ I point over. ‘Look over there.’ There’s puppets of knights and horses hanging up and jiggling about by themselves. I want to go right up to them and see how they work.
She doesn’t even hear and her hand’s feeling sweaty and slippery so I make mine stiff like a claw so it’ll be difficult to hold.
‘If you don’t hold my hand, we’ll have to go straight home.’ She’s sounding tired and cross and I’m really angry with her now for spoiling our lovely day. I try to nip the anger back in and explain.
‘It’s just that I want to look at books and I can’t because you won’t let me go.’
‘Well, we can stop holding hands when we get to a stall. How about that?’ She smiles a stiff little smile that’s not real.
I say, ‘Oh, alright then.’ I still feel cross with her because it’s not fun any more now I know she’s not enjoying it.
We come to a stall piled up high.
‘Let’s look at this one.’ I only say that because I want a rest from her.
I look at the books and they’re so babyish—Where’s Spot? and things like that. I don’t want to go back to being yanked about so I look very slowly and carefully. Spot with his bone, Spot’s day out. And the baby books make me feel even crosser but I carry on looking anyway, picking each one up.
‘Why d’you want to look at those, Carmel? They’re for little kids.’
‘I want to look at those fairy stories over there.’ I go moving up the table.
I turn over the pages of a fairy story book. The drawings aren’t that good but I look at each one anyway: the princess with her pea; Cinderella in rags; the wolf looking silly in a frilly red cloak. I move up to look at something else. People press around me and I’m being whacked on the back of my head with someone’s handbag.
I’m in such a bad mood now. It’s not often I feel like this and I don’t like it. It’s like everything’s wrong—especially me. Now I just want to be on my own. To go back to this morning in my room when the sky was blue and everything was lovely. Everyone has come into this tent now the storytelling has stopped for lunch and people want to buy something and get out of the rain. I’m getting so squashed I think the table is going to cut me in half.
Then I have an idea—to scrunch myself right down and walk like I saw a toad walk once, till I’m under the table. So I do—the tablecloth only comes halfway down but it feels free and safe and secret under there. I decide to look out for Mum’s boots that she’s got her jeans tucked into and then I’ll come out.
There’s a box of books and I take a peek into it and there’s piles of the book I used to read when I was little about a skeleton. I take one out and it’s not like when I was seeing Spot the dog. I don’t feel babyish, it’s like being back little again but I like the feeling it gives me this time. So I read Funnybones and look at the pictures. Sometimes I touch them too, I don’t know why.
When I get to the end I realise I might have been ages. But I’m not sure. Sometimes things happen so it feels like I’m not really there at all. It’s like the time the headmas- ter was talking about when I was sitting on the bench—looking at a tree blowing about—somehow my brain got slipped and in the world there was only me and the tree.
Then it slipped more and I was in a creepy dark tunnel where I’d been before but that day was the longest time it had happened for. Though I didn’t want to try and tell them about that.
And just now the same thing happened with Funnybones and there was the book and me but I didn’t go as far as the tunnel. I went back to being five for all that time and it had felt nice.
There’s less legs now so I crawl out. I’m a bit worried that I might have been a long time, I’m not sure. I look about and can’t see Mum.
I carry on picking up books. I don’t know what else to do. I should look for her, I decide. Maybe I’ll find her waiting for me at the end of the table but I get to the end and she’s not there. I stand there for a bit. Then I think, she must have got pushed back by the people and I try to look but I can’t find the back of where everyone’s standing. They just seem to melt into other people and it’s the opposite from earlier, I’m longing to see her now. My breath starts coming in and out quickly because I want to find her so much. I walk round the tent for a while. I go back to the same table where I lost her—twice, three times—and she’s still not there so I walk out of the tent and across the field.
Outside, I can hardly see the tops of the tents any more or the flags—just people coming out of the fog. And only if they’re close. All the sounds have gone thick and quiet like when I put my duvet over my head at home. I shove my hands deep into my pockets to try and stop me worrying and I think—our lovely day’s gone and we may as well go home now, back on the train. I stop, wondering what to do, and the people I can’t see, I can hear—muttering around me.
Then, stepping out of the fog right in front of me is the man from earlier with the round glasses. Because of the fog he comes out of nowhere, like a genie does.
Excerpted from the book THE GIRL IN THE RED COAT by Kate Hamer. Copyright © 2016 by Kate Hamer. Reprinted with permission of Melville House.
This story aired on March 10, 2016.
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