Read on for an exclusive extract from The Babysitter by Gemma Rogers
Thursday 29th October 2020
11am – 1pm
My head screamed in pain as I forced heavy eyelids apart and tried to focus on the gloomy sky above.
Where am I?
Terracotta leaves squelched beneath me as I struggled to sit up, one hand reflexively reaching up to the back of my head, trying to staunch the pounding in my skull. A small amount of sticky liquid from my hair transferred to my trembling fingertips.
Bringing my hand back, I recognised blood smeared on my skin.
The throbbing was so intense it muddled my thoughts as I struggled to get my bearings.
Panicked eyes darted everywhere, searching for her.
A sensation of dread swelled in my stomach, culminating in an immense scream, its release stuck in my throat.
Where is she?
I let out a strangled moan as my nails dug into the mud beneath me, trying to cling onto something real as my world turned on its axis.
No, no, no!
She was gone.
There was no buggy, no change bag, no sign of her at all.
I blinked rapidly, vision swimming.
This isn’t happening.
A spark of something, buried deep in my subconscious niggled at me, but I was too confused to make sense of it.
‘Are you hurt?’ A woman crouched beside me, knees on the sodden grass, staring at the blood on my hands.
I shivered; teeth chattering. Damp jeans clung to my skin. Thoughts came in short bursts as I tried to remember what happened, how I came to wake up on the grass.
What did I know? It was Thursday. I was at the park. A trip to the swings. Who were we meeting?
Oh God, where is she?
Terror wrapped itself around me as I scanned the park for her.
Airways shrinking, I began to hyperventilate as it became real. Eden was nowhere to be seen. She’d disappeared. Palpations ricocheted in my chest and I could hear my pulse in my ears. Thud, thud, thud, faster and faster. Someone had taken her from me, stolen her.
The woman crouched down next to me was talking but I couldn’t hear what she was saying, the only sound was a ringing in my ears as spots danced in front of my eyes.
‘Where’s Eden?’ I croaked, throat like sandpaper.
‘Who’s Eden?’ the woman asked as I clambered to my feet, wobbling on shaky legs.
I lurched forward and she grabbed me, holding me upright, her handbag falling from her shoulder to the crook of her arm. Her mouth hung open, aghast.
‘Eden. The baby. Where’s the baby?’ I screamed, head spinning.
‘I’m going to ring the police,’ she said, alarm evident in her voice as I shrugged out of her grip, stumbling onto the path, and howling like a woman possessed. Someone had Eden, snatched her from me. She was only a baby, a defenceless baby.
Overwhelming nausea hit me with each movement as I turned left and right, scanning the park, shouting her name.
A couple in the distance walking their dog looked over, the noise drawing their attention.
I could see a family in the play area, their children on the swings but too far away to make out.
Fuck, where’s Eden?
I doubled over, fearing I may be sick, sucking in air as I vaguely registered the woman on the phone to the operator, requesting the police and an ambulance.
The police? Did I want the police? Something told me it was a bad idea.
My head began to clear, the niggling thought from earlier returning. All the while, I listened to the lady tell the operator we were at Bushy Park, Reigate. I dropped to my knees, eyes level with a full bag of shopping from Sainsbury’s which been discarded at her feet.
Did I have a bag? Only the change bag and it was gone.
Checking the pockets of my jacket, my fingers wrapped around a phone. I pulled it out and unlocked the screen with clumsy fingers, hovering above Ali’s mobile number but unable to find the words. What could I tell her? That I might be responsible for her daughter being abducted?
‘They’re on their way, come and sit down, love. Tell me what happened?’ the woman encouraged; her voice as soft as silk.
‘I’ve been attacked,’ I stammered as she helped me up and led me to the wooden bench, and I sank onto it.
She took off her red woollen coat and draped it around my shaking frame. I wanted to protest, drizzle hung in the air, and she was older, around fifty, but she wrapped her arm around me and held it firm. All the time, white-hot pokers were being inserted into the back of my head and I reached up again tentatively to check they weren’t really there.
‘Did you have a baby with you?’ she asked.
‘Yes. She’s gone,’ I whined, unable to stop myself shivering.
‘Good Lord, your daughter?’ The woman’s voice was shrill, the sound tormented my ears.
‘Eden. No, no, she’s not my daughter. I’m the babysitter.’
I put my head in my hands and sobbed. The woman’s hand caressed my back, soothing strokes as sirens wailed in the distance.
‘There you go, it’s okay, here’s your dummy,’ I said, keeping my gravelly voice steady as I hurriedly tried to clip the grisly child into the car seat. Fingers fumbling with straps I wasn’t used to. ‘We’re just going on a little drive.’
Eden wriggled in protest, trying to break free, flexing her body to prevent being constrained.
‘Come on,’ I said through gritted teeth, more to myself than to her, the vein in my forehead pulsating. We had to get on the road and fast.
Eventually I wrestled her in, the fasteners snapping shut, catching the skin of my finger.
‘Fuck!’ I growled.
In defiance, she spat her dummy out and screamed, the noise jarring instantly. My eye twitched, blood pressure soaring. Clenching my jaw, I picked the dummy up from her lap and put it back in her mouth before adjusting the seat belt to make sure she was secure. The toy bar I clipped to each side of the seat grabbed her attention immediately and the dummy remained in place.
Closing the door, I collapsed the buggy as quickly as I could, initially struggling to find the clips. I contemplated leaving it behind, but then it gave and flopped to the ground. I threw it in the boot and hurried around to the driver’s side, keeping my head low as I ducked into the seat. I took a second to straighten the navy Three Lions baseball cap I’d retrieved from the holdall in the rear footwell, pulling it as far down as I could whilst still being able to see.
The engine started straight away, windscreen wipers springing to life, but I was too heavy on the accelerator, tyres flicking mud into the air from the grass verge as the wheels spun. My heart thrashed like it was going to burst out of my chest, and I looked through the rain-speckled windows to see if anyone was around to witness my revving.
Luckily there was only one lady and her dog, around fifty metres away, and she seemed absorbed in her mobile phone. The sky was grey, and it continued to drizzle. We’d been hit with a week’s worth of rain in the past few days, but this morning it had been dry, up until half an hour ago anyway. That’s why I’d suggested a trip to the park, some fresh air, knowing Brooke would agree. She thought she’d be getting paid, so it was an added incentive to come. I had the money with me, more than the five hundred pounds she’d asked for this time, but I had no intention of paying her ever again.
I’d left the car right by an underpass, using a cut-through of woodland to get into Bushy Park to meet Brooke. I’d checked and there were no cameras nearby, the closest house was fifty metres away. It wasn’t the obvious route into the park and hadn’t been forgiving when attempting to wheel the buggy back the way I’d come, hastily dragging it through pine cones, rotting conkers and twigs. I’d had to carry it most of the way, sweating from the effort of trying to jog with it, desperate to get Eden into the car and out of sight.
Blood rushed into my ears as my heart continued to race, sweat pooling at my lower back from the exertion. I was adding to the musty smell of the car, but I didn’t dare lower the windows. Instead I turned on the hot air, hoping to disperse the condensation building up on the windscreen. Outside was cold, the clocks had gone back the week before, autumn was in full swing and the days had become grey and uninviting. Enough to stop you wanting to get out of bed, although that morning I had a reason – Eden.
Despite the adrenaline coursing through my veins like lightning, I had to keep calm, remember to drive slowly, safely. I was carrying precious cargo and didn’t want to draw unnecessary attention. We’d made it back to the car quickly and, more importantly, unseen. Everything had gone to plan. I had my beautiful daughter, and now we had to get as far away as possible.
I’d left my car at home, opting to use my dad’s old burgundy Mondeo, which was still registered in his name. He’d bought it new in the late nineties and it only had fifty thousand miles on the clock, having spent much of the past few years in his garage. Taxed and MOT’d every year but not often driven since we’d grown up. As kids, we were in it all the time. I remembered sitting in the back with my brother off to footy training, the new-car smell making us feel sick as Dad tortured us with Capital Gold on the radio.
Driving it felt alien in comparison to my Audi and I shifted in my seat, trying to get comfortable. Glancing in the rear-view mirror, I could see plump rosy cheeks working away on the dummy as Eden spun the plastic dolphins on the toy bar in front of her, chestnut brown eyes still watery with tears. Hopefully she would go to sleep soon. It was dark in the back as both rear side windows had black fabric sunscreens stretched over them. They were a spontaneous purchase yesterday while I shopped for baby clothes, on sale at the till. I fitted them before I left this morning, figuring with them attached to the windows at the back either side, no one would be able to see in if they pulled alongside us. I’d take the risk of someone thinking it was strange being late October and summer a distant memory.
Behind me, a spinning mirror rattled as it rotated, causing Eden to kick her legs excitedly. It was distracting and I scratched my stubble, skin catching on a torn nail. I’d find it easier to concentrate on the road if I pretended she wasn’t there.
As I followed signs for the M25, I tallied everything I’d packed: food, formula, nappies, wipes and clothes. Hoping I hadn’t forgotten anything.
My eyes darted to the mirror again, careful to keep them returning to the road every few seconds. Eden’s eyelids were already heavy. The motion of the car lulling her to sleep. I put the radio on low, for background noise.
Another hour and we’d reach the M1.
One more hour and we’d disappear for good.
The police arrived within minutes of the phone call, blue lights still flashing outside the park gate as two officers in reflective jackets hurried towards us on foot. Helen, the Good Samaritan, who’d introduced herself as we’d waited, flagged them down. She’d tried to keep me talking, to calm my hysteria as the relentless drizzle turned into fat droplets of rain, but nothing could ease my racing thoughts.
Part of the bench was sheltered by an oak tree and she’d shuffled me down to try and keep dry. I couldn’t stop shaking, my body moving of its own accord. Brain pulsing, like it was about to burst out of my skull. The sharp stabbing pains made me nauseous and I struggled to concentrate. I just wanted Eden back – where was she?
I knew I needed to call Ali, but I couldn’t bring myself to do it. How could I tell her, her worst fear – every mother’s worst fear – had come true? Her beautiful daughter had been taken and I had no idea where she was. How could I look her in the eye when it had happened whilst she was in my care? Not when I thought I knew who’d done it.
As the officers approached, I handed Helen back her coat and lurched towards them, the tarmac slapping beneath my trainers. I came up short, the swift movement sent me reeling and I doubled over.
‘Help, please. They’ve taken my friend’s daughter,’ I yelled as they came closer.
One of the officers immediately radioed for reinforcements, rushing forwards to assist, worried I might topple. The other, tall and gangly, came to a stop in front of me, a notebook already in his hand and, underneath today’s date, noted the time as twenty-five past eleven, and our location, Bushy Park, Reigate.
‘I’m PC Barrow and this is PC Kempton. The paramedics are on their way. What’s your name?’ he asked.
‘Brooke Simmons,’ I replied shakily, standing to full height. I shouldn’t have moved so quickly, my vision blurred.
PC Kempton took a step forward, watching me closely, ready to catch me if I fell.
‘Brooke, I understand you’ve been attacked?’ PC Barrow asked.
‘Yes, I was hit around the back of the head, but it’s stopped bleeding now.’ I was getting impatient, I’d be okay, but they needed to search for Eden.
‘And you say a child’s been taken? What’s the name of the child?’ he continued; his pen poised.
‘Eden Tolfrey, I babysit her.’ I tucked my unruly hair behind my ears to stop it flapping in the wind.
‘How old is Eden?’
I shuddered at the question.
Helen appeared at my side, her arm around my middle as my knees weakened.
‘She’s just a year old.’ Tears streamed from my eyes. She was so small, so little. What had I done?
‘Can you tell me what she looks like, what she is wearing?’
‘Um, she’s blonde, short hair, brown eyes. Wearing grey leggings, a pink striped top, cardigan and coat. The buggy has gone too, it’s a yellow Bugaboo and there was also a change bag on the back.’
PC Kempton soaked it up, happy to let Barrow do the talking. He was a stocky Asian man, much shorter than Barrow; the pair couldn’t have been more opposite. He scanned the park, as I had, before speaking into his receiver again. Reiterating Eden’s name, age and description.
‘So, what happened this morning? What time did you arrive at the park?’ PC Barrow asked, his tone matter of fact.
‘I got here about ten thirty, taking Eden to the swings.’ I sniffed, wiping my tears away.
‘Did you see who attacked you?’ He jumped in, stare expectant.
I shook my head, wishing I hadn’t as the park spun. It was the truth; I hadn’t seen who’d attacked me. I told him we were heading back because of the rain just before eleven when I was hit around the back of the head. The next thing I knew, I’d woken up on the grass and Eden was gone.
I wrung my hands as I spoke, the words didn’t feel real, like I was reciting something I’d seen on television, not what had just happened to me. It made my stomach churn.
‘Can you tell me where Eden lives and her parents’ details.’ PC Barrow’s manner was authoritative, like that of a teacher scolding a schoolgirl. It put me on edge.
I gave the address, retrieving my phone so I could supply Ali’s mobile number too. PC Kempton radioed it in.
‘Where exactly did the attack happen?’ PC Barrow asked, creases etched into his forehead.
‘I’ll go get some tape,’ PC Kempton chipped in instinctively, before jogging back to the car.
‘Over here,’ I said, leaving Helen on the path and leading the officer towards the flattened grass where I came to. I must have only been out for a few minutes. I shuddered, spotting tiny specks of my blood on the path.
‘Okay, we’ll tape this off now.’
PC Kempton returned a minute later with bright yellow tape and quickly secured an area of around ten metres, wrapping it around two trees, a lamp post and bin. The tape billowed in the wind, marking the location of the crime. It was something I’d seen on television, advertising a grisly scene on a police drama, but never in real life. It was surreal.
‘November Papa to Whiskey Mike four eight, paramedics now on scene, waiting at entrance to the park, opposite the church, over,’ the radio on his chest blurted, making me jump.
PC Kempton spoke into the radio, acknowledging the message received.
‘Are you okay to walk?’ Barrow asked.
I nodded and let him take my upper arm to lead me out of the park.
‘The paramedics are out here. We need to get you seen to.’
‘You’ve got to find her, she’ll be frightened,’ I pleaded, eyes filling again.
‘We’ve put an alert out; all available officers in the area will be searching. In the meantime, let’s get the paramedics to take a look at your injury.’ He arched back slightly, grimacing at the back of my head as we walked.
PC Kempton was a few feet behind, in step with Helen, who was telling him how she found me unconscious on the grass. He wrote everything in an identical notebook, and I heard him take her contact details.
‘What about Ali, she’ll be frantic when I don’t return with Eden,’ I worried.
‘We’ll visit Mr and Mrs Tolfrey shortly,’ PC Barrow said, his voice strangely soothing.
I felt crushed when I thought about how much pain she’d be in; how frantic she’d be when the police arrived at her door. Cowardly, I was relieved I wouldn’t have to tell her what I’d done. She knew me so well; she’d see I knew more than I was telling.
With legs like jelly, I let PC Barrow pull me along. It was like an out-of-body experience as my eyes drifted in and out of focus, but I wasn’t sure if it was due to shock or the whack around the head.
We neared the gates, the park now empty. The rain grew steadily heavier and I was soaked through, shivering in my bomber jacket, jeans saturated. A bright yellow ambulance was parked at the entrance and another police car arrived as we exited.
PC Kempton thanked Helen and left her at the exit of the park, heading for the patrol car and PC Barrow led me towards the rear of the ambulance, doors already wide open. He helped me climb inside and physically handed me over to the petite blonde paramedic. She manoeuvred me onto the bed, lifting my legs as I pivoted. All my strength had evaporated.
Thoughts melted away and I tried to listen to the officer explain to the paramedic what had happened to me. A foil blanket first, then a red woollen one was draped over me and something clipped to my finger. I started to drift, succumbing to the rhythmic throbbing in my head, lulling me to sleep. Exhausted from the trauma.
‘Brooke, stay with us, okay. I know you’re cold, we’re going to try and raise your temperature. I’m going to look at your head, but I’ll try not to touch it too much.’
My teeth chattered loudly as she parted my hair, fingertips gently probing.
‘It’s stopped bleeding, but I think we’re going to have to take you to hospital to get you properly checked out. It may need a couple of stitches.’ The paramedic tapped my shoulder comfortingly. She had a friendly bedside manner and I found it calming. ‘She’s going to need her wound looked at, may well have a concussion. We’ll take her to East Surrey,’ I heard her say in a quieter voice to the officer.
‘Okay, do you mind if my colleague PC Kempton rides with you. We’ll need to get as much information from her as possible.’
The paramedic nodded and Barrow smiled, before turning to me. My eyes glazed over and I struggled to keep them open.
‘Brooke, can you hear me? PC Kempton is going to stay with you. I’m going to head over to the Tolfreys,’ he said, slipping out of the ambulance.
PC Kempton replaced him a second later, sitting down opposite me.
‘Did you see a car or where Eden was taken?’ He spoke in a voice most people reserved for the elderly, softer than PC Barrow.
I gave the slightest shake of the head and wished I hadn’t straight away.
‘I’m going to be sick,’ I said, already aware of the bile rushing up from my stomach.
The paramedic whisked a cardboard bowl out and put it in front of me as I sat forward and heaved. Splashes of vomit landed on the blanket. Once finished, she handed me a tissue to wipe my mouth.
‘Let me take that, sweetheart,’ she said, removing the bowl.
I sank back with a groan, resting my head on the cool bed and listening to rain patter on the roof.
‘Do you know of anyone who would want to take Eden, to harm her, or the Tolfreys?’ PC Kempton asked, his dark brows knitted together as he leaned towards me.
‘No,’ I replied, swallowing hard, the lie stuck in my throat, refusing to go down.
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