by Anne Crittenden
The sound was like a slap in the face, unexpected and brutal. As the child fell from the swing there was a crack as he hit the concrete, a blood-curdling scream and then silence.
Jenna had been sitting on one of the benches near the adventure playground, watching. Recently, she realised it was unwise to sit too close because those mothers who came each day with their children had been giving her a look. Jenna knew that look, a look that smacked of self-satisfaction, but rather than retaliate she retreated to a safe distance, choosing a different vantage point each day. Those women would not understand, so there was no point trying to explain.
The boy was alone. Assuming he must have run on ahead and somehow escaped from whoever was supposed to be taking care of him. Jenna took little notice until he clambered onto the swing. Unlike many toddlers he was fearless, thrusting his legs in and out, in and out as the swing travelled faster and higher.
Jenna understood the child’s joy, carefree and lost in the moment. Surely, his mother must be somewhere nearby but as Jenna scanned the park, she realised there was no-one else in sight. It would be unwise to speak to the boy but she would wait at a safe distance, to make sure he was in no danger.
She could not be certain how the accident happened but now the child was on the ground, motionless. Jenna ran across the path to where he lay, her thoughts in turmoil as to what she should do. Fighting off the urge to hold him in her arms, whisper everything would be alright, she called for an ambulance.
Perhaps now, the council would do something about the playground. The equipment was old, wooden seats rough with splinters and the chains rusted. The floor should have been upgraded years ago but someone had put up a disclaimer, reminding parents that the use of playground equipment was their responsibility and children must be supervised at all times.
The wait for an ambulance seemed interminable. The child’s complexion was ashen, his skin clammy. Jenna took off her jacket, laying it gently over his tiny body. He looked so vulnerable now, so different from the carefree spirit of moments ago. As she waited Jenna rehearsed her lines, taking deep breaths to compose herself. When the ambulance pulled up, blue lights flashing, the crew wasted no time.
“Are you the child’s mother?”
“Yes. I was checking a phone message when he just ran off. This is all my fault. Will he be ok?”
The paramedics began their checks, tapping the child gently on the shoulder, checking that he was still breathing.
“What’s his name, love?”
She spoke the name without hesitation, her attention focused on the child and avoiding the gaze of the paramedic. Jenna explained she had been running to catch up with Jacob. Normally, she would not let him out of her sight but this morning he disobeyed her. He was not allowed to use the swings unsupervised.
“We need to get him to hospital immediately. You’ll want to come in the ambulance with him.”
It was a statement, not a question. Jenna picked up her jacket waiting while the child was lifted onto a stretcher, his neck supported, before climbing into the back of the ambulance.
The hospital was on the other side of town, twenty minutes in the traffic. If the boy recovered consciousness before then, he would cry out. When they reached the hospital Jenna understood she should slip away, once she knew he would be looked after. His mother would soon report the boy missing and they would be reunited. Jenna had not yet been asked for her own name. As the ambulance pulled up outside Accident and Emergency, the stretcher was lifted onto a waiting trolley and the boy was whisked away from her.
Suddenly, she was aware of a hand on her arm steering her through a different entrance, past a sea of faces.
“Mrs Eversham? We need a few details from you. As soon as there’s any news of Jacob, the doctor will come and speak to you.”
When did she give them her name? That part was not a lie but everything that came next would be untrue, each lie embellishing the previous one, layer upon layer of fiction. If she told the truth now everyone would understand, but continuing the pretence with such a shaky story would make everything unravel.
“Where’s the Ladies?”
The nurse who had escorted her pointed to a blue door along the corridor. On the way, Jenna scanned the rows of patients awaiting treatment, all too engrossed in their own suffering to notice her. She slammed the door of an empty cubicle.
She should report the mother to the NSPCC or Social Services. Women like that didn’t deserve to have children. Jenna tried to steady her breathing, stay in control. Hospital staff would understand why she was upset, her child possibly suffering from life-changing injuries, but she needed to focus, keep her story straight. Splashing ice-cold water on her face before brushing her hair, Jenna returned to the reception desk.
“Your address please, Mrs Eversham.”
Jenna moved closer to the woman. “That’s the name I’ve chosen to use. Jacob’s not his real name either. We’re staying in a refuge. I can’t let my husband find out where we are. He’ll kill us.”
“Your details are confidential but I need to access your son’s medical records.”
“We were living abroad. He’s not registered here. Why do you need all this information to treat my little boy? It’s ridiculous.”
“Mrs er .Eversham, the medical staff are taking good care of your son, I assure you. His medical records will tell us if he might be allergic to medication.”
“Jacob has no allergies. He’s a very healthy child.”
The receptionist was flicking through documents on the computer screen, her attention divided, but something caught her eye and she looked directly at Jenna again.
“Take a seat again, Mrs Eversham.”
Jenna found a vacant chair opposite the desk. The woman was now on the phone, her back turned so it was impossible to hear what she was saying. Jenna knew she should leave at that moment, slip away surreptitiously before her attempt at a good deed was construed as something different. Nobody was looking at her as she picked up her jacket and bag, walking towards the exit.
Two policemen passed her but did not look in her direction as they headed towards the main reception area. There was a bus stop outside the hospital entrance but Jenna needed to clear her head and that would be the first place they might look for her. She should walk home, forget about the child who would be cared for until his real family were found. She should stay away from that playground too.
A screech of brakes made her turn around. A police car pulled up beside her, one uniformed officer stepping into her path, preventing her escape.
“Jennifer Eversham? I need you to come with us.”
“Why? What am I supposed to have done?”
“Just following up a line of enquiry, madam. Please step into the car.”
These men were not the ones she had seen in the hospital. They would ask intrusive questions, accuse her of attempting to kidnap the boy, charge her with something when they should be firing questions at his real mother whose parenting skills were dubious, to say the least. Records must have been found and the receptionist would have jumped to conclusions.
There would be no point in continuing the charade, Jenna realised. Her attempt to keep a child safe had failed once again.
She was shown into an interviewing room, stark and intimidating. A woman entered, file in hand, and sat opposite her. Jenna put her hands in her lap, one on top of the other, resisting the urge to drum her fingers on the table. She was asked to confirm her name and address, for the tape, and this time she told the truth.
“Can you please tell me what happened this morning, before you called an ambulance?”
As she explained, Jenna could not hold back the tears.
“I like to watch the children. I imagine how Jacob might have been, had he lived. I was alone when that little boy arrived. I thought someone must be with him but he was alone. When he fell, I had to do something to help. I did nothing wrong.”
“Why did you pretend he was your son, Jennifer?”
“I wasn’t thinking. I would never harm a child, I promise you. I wanted to know if he was alright. If I told the truth..”
“I’m sure life must have been very hard for you without Jacob. I understand why you might want to protect another child.”
“Has his mother been found?”
“She thought he was playing in the garden so didn’t report his disappearance straightway. She’s at the hospital now.”
“She should be reported to Social Services. Mothers don’t know how to look after their children properly.”
The woman ignored the comment, telling Jenna she could go but advising her to keep away from the children’s playground in future.
“Have you thought about some counselling or a support group?”
Jenna shook her head. Who would understand or sympathize? She should have trusted her judgment and left the husband who had changed from being kind and loving to an obsessional control freak, jealous of a mother’s love for her child. If she could not forgive herself, how could she expect anyone else to?
She had been visiting her mother the night it happened, Carl insisting he would take care of their son. Jacob had been a fretful baby, prone to crying and settling only when Jenna comforted him. She had been out less than two hours, but the house was eerily silent when she opened the door. Carl was watching football, lager can in hand. When Jenna asked about Jacob, he told her to stop fussing; the child had cried himself to sleep. As soon as she saw her son, she knew he was dead, his face blue and cold.
Carl had been charged with murder and found guilty, but she would suffer a life sentence of untold, unbearable grief.
Her basement flat was secluded but the rent was affordable because the rooms were cramped and cold, the walls thick. As she let herself in, Jenna heard a whimper coming from the furthest room. Removing the key from her pocket, she unlocked the door.
“Don’t cry, Jacob. I’m here now."