Pulp.net - The Baddie

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November 2008
THE BADDIE

Kay Sexton
We didn’t realise Becky was missing until we got to the car.

I’ll be honest — I’m scared of lifts. It’s not claustrophobia, just fear of getting stuck for hours
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in some little box between floors. So I’d walked up six flights of piss-scented stairs. Josh had taken the lift, and most of the shopping. When I met him at the car he was tapping his fingers on the steering wheel impatiently. I sniffed, instinctively rubbing my nose — just to be on the safe side.

‘Where’s Becky?’ he asked.

I looked behind me as though she might have been trailing me silently — fat chance, the way she chattered on all the time. She dropped words like Hansel and Gretel dropped crumbs.

‘I thought she was with you.’

I watched his face collapse like an old balloon. I wasn’t worried, not at first, but then, she’s not my daughter.

I ran down to the kiosk on the ground floor to tell the staff a six year old girl was missing in their car park while Josh went back to the lifts and retraced his steps. There were two grey-haired men on duty and they blinked at me and then turned to their CCTV screens.

‘Can’t see her,’ one said.

I peered at the screens; six rectangles of muzzy greyness, two not even working. I thought that was probably actionable — they had a legal obligation to keep the surveillance equipment in good order or to patrol the car park, but I kept my thoughts to myself. It might come in useful if Josh had to sue them.

‘Well, what are you going to do?’ I demanded.

They blinked again.

‘One of you can come and search while the other one watches for her on the CCTV,’ I suggested.

‘Righto,’ the first one replied. I wondered if the other could talk at all.

A grey shape loomed into one of the screens.

‘Look, that’s Josh,’ I said, trying to get them moving. ‘Her dad.’

I scribbled our mobile numbers on a post-it from the desk and gave it to the one who could talk. ‘She’s only six, her name’s Rebecca, Becky for short, wearing a pink T-shirt and jeans. If you find her first, call us so we can stop looking, if we find her first we’ll head for the nearest camera so you can see she’s safe.’

I looked at the mute, who nodded.

I still wasn’t worried, just annoyed. She was prone to such things, getting lost, falling off swings, dropping ice-cream down her best clothes, trapping her fingers in drawers: a liability. Josh said it was mild hyperactivity and emotional trauma following the divorce, I thought she was simply a clever, clumsy, manipulative little girl.

I tolerated her because of Josh, and because I couldn’t see any of him in her. From the day he’d introduced her to me — two months after our first date — I knew she would blight our relationship if I let her. So I didn’t. I was polite and civilised, just as I would have been if I’d met his ex-wife. In time I came to think of Becky as his ex’s clone, a miniature spy and saboteur. I drew on my legal experience the weekends she was with us — never saying anything actionable, and storing up evidence for the prosecution.

Josh was going to each lift level in turn. When I got near the stairwell I could hear him calling, ‘Becky, Rebecca? Come on darling.’ His voice faded away as he got into the lift and travelled down a level.

It was then I remembered there were two lifts, East and West, and a small, frightened girl might wander off to the other end of the car park if she was disoriented. It wasn’t dark yet, but the sky was closing in and the lights in the multi-storey failed to illuminate the dark corners of the staircase. Suddenly I was scared; scared for Rebecca, alone in the black-bordered hostility of the car park, and scared for myself. If Josh blamed me for losing her, it could be the end of our affair. I bolstered myself with the smallest possible toot, making sure I couldn’t be seen on CCTV, before working out what to do next.

For a few seconds I dithered, shifting my feet, trying to work out from what I knew of her where she’d be most likely to go. She was a spoilt brat — the fault of the unseen mother and ex-wife. ‘Mummy says I shouldn’t have to share Daddy with you,’ she was always saying to me. ‘You can play with Daddy all the time, but I’m only ’lowed to play with him at weekends so you should let me have first turns.’

Josh smiled when her heard this, but the idea of taking “turns” of Josh sounded obscene to me. Becky was tall for her age and skinny, and she acted like a kid fed solely on blue Smarties and soda — fizzing with unspent energy.

Josh and I had been together for nearly two years and in that time Becky had been asked to leave a day-care centre, and her first school, because she disrupted groups and lashed out at authority. She controlled Josh with a blend of tears and fury, a high-octane mix that accelerated her regularly into head-banging tantrums.

I began to climb the stairs. I was confident Rebecca would have headed as high as she could. ‘King of the Castle’ was a favourite game, it extended to lying along the top of the sofa while we were watching television, stroking her Dad’s hair and knocking her bony little knees into my skull whenever she thought she could get away with it.

And I was right. When I reached the top level of the car park, with only two or three cars scattered across the tarmac like abandoned toys — she was there. There were four huge concrete bunkers, one in each corner of the roof — presumably they held emergency equipment. She was sitting straight-legged on one of them, banging her tiny, pink Nike trainers together.

I walked over, determined not to scare her or give her an excuse for tears. To my surprise she stretched out her arms straight away to be lifted down and held my left hand firmly as I speed-dialled Josh and gave him the good news. Then I led her to the CCTV camera which was aimed at the lift doors and stood there, to let the security people know the panic was over. That was when the first prickle of unease set cat-scratches along my spine, but Josh appeared, pounding across the empty parking spaces to grab us both in a bone-grinding hug and I forgot what had troubled me.

We walked Becky to the stairs, each holding one of her hands, and I turned to look back. The cement block on which she’d been sitting glowed white in the twilight like a giant sugar cube. I squinted, remembering that when I’d lifted her from it, I’d had to raise my arms above shoulder level — then she tugged my hand and I turned and walked down the stairs.

• • •

‘I didn’t push him,’ she said as Josh parked the car outside his flat. All the way home we’d listened to one of her ghastly Fimbles tapes — neither of us had felt up to talking and Becky was uncharacteristically silent. I looked back at her, perched on her booster cushion like Little Miss Muffet. But her face was pinched and her arms were tightly wrapped round her upper body.

‘Who?’ I asked, as Josh got out to walk round and unfasten her seatbelt. Her eyes met mine for a fraction of a moment before she looked down.

‘Baddie,’ she said.

Baddie — Becky’s nightmare. Every man, apart from Josh, was a baddie. Although I had problems with her, I felt genuine sympathy for Josh’s ex-wife when I imagined how difficult it must be for her to have any kind of social, let alone sexual, life with the kid around. When Josh read story books to Becky, she pointed gleefully to every villain or villainess getting their desserts. She looked at me when Sleeping Beauty’s mother or Cinderella’s sisters got their come-uppance, but her fondest moments were the giant crashing to the ground in Jack and the Beanstalk, the wolf being hacked to death in Red Riding Hood and the drowning of the troll in Three Billy Goats Gruff. She hated the caretaker at her school, she was inclined to hysteria if she saw a man in the street she thought looked sinister, and she had been known to screech like a banshee if a man with a beard appeared on television.

‘Come on,’ Josh said, lifting her from the child seat. ‘Let’s get some food into you.’ She stared at me over his shoulder as he carried her to the front door — she looked like an infant monkey, wizened and prematurely wise.

‘I didn’t push him,’ she said again.

Josh went into the kitchen to put fishcakes under the grill for her. ‘How did you get on to that big thing on the roof?’ I asked her. Her mouth opened and closed without words. ‘You couldn’t have climbed up, it was too high.

‘The baddie…’ she said, pausing and glancing up at me as if trying potential lies for size by measuring them against my reaction. ‘He …helped me.

I felt a strange panic, a mixture of fear and laughter. It was ludicrous to imagine that this little girl, however odd, was telling me something as horrifying as I was imagining.

‘The baddie — what was he like?’ I asked.

‘Oh a bad man,’ she said, suddenly confident again. ‘Very bad, long nails like Mr Wolf, very smelly, bad man. His toes stuck out through his trainers. He was a wolf, you know,’ she nodded in a self-satisfied fashion. ‘Wolfs have hairy feets you can see through their shoes, it’s in my book. And he had a bad can, yellow.

A bad can would be a can of booze. The car park was probably a haunt of winos and rough sleepers; I’d known that just from the smell. Josh was standing in the doorway with a spatula in his hand. I gestured to him to remain silent.

‘So what happened to the bad man?’ I asked.

‘Oh, he turned into a bat and flew away,’ she said. Josh laughed. I held up my hand again.

‘So who didn’t you push, Becky?’ I asked it quietly and as calmly as I could.

She tutted at me — as though I was a child and she the adult.

Josh moved forward. ‘Sharon? What are you implying?’ he said.

I held up my hand a third time and waited. Becky stuck out her bottom lip and began to kick the toe of one trainer against the heel of the other.

‘I didn’t push him. Well, not much. He was a baddie! He was smelly and he couldn’t talk properly, like the zombie-men on Jackie Chan!’

I stared at Josh. He came and crouched in front of her. ‘Becky, darling, what do you mean?’

She began to shake. ‘I just pushed him a bit after he got up on top with me. I didn’t want him to come up, I was King of the Castle — he was supposed to be the dirty rascal but he got up too and then he was really smelly and so I just—’

Instead of talking she mimed pushing out with her wiry arms and then collapsed in tears.

Ten minutes later she was tucked up on the sofa with a bowl of ice-cream and the cartoon channel. Josh and I were in the kitchen, scraping burnt fishcake out of the grill pan and whispering.

‘It’s not possible,’ he muttered. ‘You know what kind of imagination she’s got. She couldn’t push a man off the roof. She’s a little kid.

I shook my head. ‘I think she did Josh. If he was drunk, she would only have to unsettle his balance and he’d tip over, the barrier’s only just knee high. Seriously, we’ve got to decide what to do.’

He glared at me. ‘We’re not doing anything. It’s just a fantasy.’

I looked back at her. ‘I don’t think so Josh, I think she really pushed somebody off the roof.’

‘Rubbish. The police would have been in touch by now.’

‘Only if they’ve found the body. You saw what those two security guards were like — I think we wore them out just asking them to walk around the car park. There’s no chance they’d have gone out again yet; they’ll be supping tea and telling each other how exciting it was to deal with a missing kid.’ I shook my head. Becky gave me a calculating look. If Josh was right, I was overreacting, but if he was wrong, Becky was a deeply disturbed and possibly violent young killer.

I went to sit beside her. ‘So tell me about the bad man, Becky.’ She gave up patting the ice-cream into flattened hills and began to lick the spoon, gazing at me over the silvery bowl.

‘You didn’t like him,’ she said. I was nonplussed.

‘You pushed him.’ She turned back to the cartoon.

I looked at Josh. He shrugged. ‘So call the police Sharon, if you’re that worried.

I tried Becky again. ‘Now you know that’s not true Rebecca. I wasn’t there — the baddie was gone when I arrived.’

‘No,’ she said. ‘You pushed him over. I saw. You thought he was doing bad things and you pushed him.’

I sat back, trying to hide the shaking in my hands. She’d killed somebody, I was sure of it. But I couldn’t do a thing. I looked at the phone. If I called the police it would be her word against mine. I would lose Josh for sure, but worse, if I had to go the police station they might drug test me. Would they? I wasn’t sure. I dealt in civil law, my criminal training was sketchy. But I did know I’d sneaked out to the Ladies toilet during lunch for the tiniest snort, as well as the two on the car park stairs, one before she went missing and one after. Cocaine helped me cope with Becky, but I would lose my job if I tested positive. Lawyers didn’t get second chances and drug use was not a grey area.

‘Let’s put Becky to bed, she’s had a long day,’ I said. I wanted to get her out of the way.

Josh picked her up and carried her to the bathroom. By the time he’d supervised brushing her teeth and washing her face I had a story ready. I let him put her to bed, and then sat him down.

‘Josh, it’s entirely possible that she saw some madman commit suicide. He may even have helped her onto that box-thing to give her a better view. That could be why she’s feeling guilty and saying she didn’t push him. I think we should let her sleep now, and decide in the morning what to do.’

Josh nodded. I felt relieved — a compromise between what I was sure she’d done and what she’d accused me of doing meant I didn’t have to call the police. I was safe. We could say we’d taken her story as hysteria. By the time anybody contacted us my bloodstream would be clear and I would never, ever, touch coke again.

We cuddled up on the sofa, and Josh had his hand up my sweater, inching his way with seductive slowness across my ribs, when I looked up and saw her standing at the top of the stairs in her pyjamas. ‘I want a new coat tomorrow,’ she said. ‘A red coat, like Red Riding Hood’s.’ Josh laughed, but I nodded and said I’d take her shopping.

Before she turned and went back to bed, she smiled at me, and held out her arms as though pushing somebody — hard.


© Kay Sexton 2007
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