by Sheena Billett
double espresso with a shot of brandy
Marnie knew for certain that she was a bad mother the day she lost Archie. One minute she was browsing through the second-hand books on Sam’s market stall, safe in the knowledge that Archie was beside her making a fuss of Sam’s dog, Bess, and the next, she was in a state of panic overlaid with a thin veneer of ‘Don’t worry, he’s around here somewhere.’
But after twenty minutes of Marnie and Sam searching and calling down every aisle of the covered market, her panic broke through. The traders on Norwich market were a close-knit bunch and word travelled fast, but in spite of all their efforts Archie had vanished. Marnie felt her fragile world imploding as she collapsed into a wailing heap. By this time Sam had alerted the two PCSOs patrolling nearby, and while one was busy talking on the radio, the other was doing her best to comfort Marnie: ‘He can’t have gone far, love. Don’t worry, we’ll find him.’
But Marnie knew that it was too late. Now everyone would know what she’d known inside for a long time – she was a bad mother. Georgie had said it often enough, after her first bout of post-natal depression, and again after her second breakdown when Archie was three and she had apparently walked out of the house leaving him alone, sleeping in his bed. Marnie had no recollection of anything about that night until she had come-to on the secure ward at Hellesdon. Although she loved Archie with a force that took her breath away, Marnie knew he deserved better. Just as Georgie had always said.
In defeat, she felt the energy leave her body. Nothing had any meaning any more.
‘Come on, Marnie. Don’t give up. You have to fight to find Archie – he’s your son.’ Sam was crouching, eye-to-eye with her, and Marnie felt his desperation to drag her back from oblivion.
She put her head in her hands and closed her eyes, as usual retreating from a situation that was too much to handle. Was this how she was going to live the rest of her life, running away from every challenge?
And then something clicked in her head: Whether I’m a good mother or not, he is my son! Nothing can change that...ever. If I don’t do something now, I’ll never be able to live with myself.
Marnie felt some of her energy return. She straightened her back and lifted her head and jumped to her feet.
‘I need to find him!’ She impatiently shook off the arm that Sam had put around her shoulders
‘Okay, is there anywhere around the market or nearby that he likes to go?’ The PCSO had become more business-like. Marnie saw from her badge that she was called Becca.
Marnie was tempted to reply, self-pityingly that she wouldn’t know because she only had access to Archie every other weekend, and that only recently had those visits been unsupervised. But she caught herself. ‘He is your son.’ She chanted the mantra inside her head.
She thought. ‘Well, I know he likes the toy shop in the arcade.’ What five-year-old wouldn’t?
‘Okay. Walk with me and we’ll see if we can find him. Sam, you stay here in case Archie comes back.’ Becca nodded to her colleague who was on the radio.
They walked along a stall-lined alley, heading for the toy shop. Marnie looked left and right down each alley that ran across at right-angles, frantically searching for Archie’s red T-shirt and mop of blond, curly hair. How could he have just vanished? He must be here somewhere. Marnie’s need to find him was now all-consuming and her focus was razor-sharp.
They reached the end of the market and searched up and down Gentleman’s Walk, Marnie showing passers-by a picture of Archie on her phone.
‘Can you send me that? I’ll get it distributed,’ said Becca.
Marnie did as Becca requested, reluctant to take her eyes away from her surroundings, even for a moment.
‘Okay, let’s head in to Langley’s, my colleagues have got this area covered now.
Today, Marnie was oblivious to the welcome cool of the Royal Arcade on a hot day – her sole aim was to get to the toy shop.
‘You look upstairs, I’ll search down here,’ Becca ordered.
Marnie rushed up the stairs, taking them two at a time. Her frantic search which took all of one minute was fruitless. She returned to Becca who had also drawn a blank. None of the staff had seen Archie.
‘It’s pretty certain that he hasn’t been in here. Do you think he could have found his way to the Jarrold’s toy department?’ Becca’s calm was starting to get to Marnie.
Her heart was thumping and a terrible sense of dread was growing with each minute. Without answering, Marnie set off at a sprint towards Jarrolds. Once inside, she climbed impatiently up the snail-paced escalators, pushing people aside with no time or thought for apology.
She raced past the cuddly toys and colouring books, and there he was!
Archie was looking at a box of Lego, Georgie crouching beside him.
‘Mummy! Look what Daddy’s getting me.’ Archie ran forwards grabbing Marnie’s hand to drag her over, but Marnie just took him in her arms and held him tight, sobbing with relief.
After a few moments, Archie wriggled free and looked uncertainly at Marnie, and then at Georgie. ‘Why is Mummy crying?’
‘I think Mummy thought she’d lost you,’ said Georgie giving Marnie a smug grin.
Marnie ignored him and turned to Archie, crouching down to speak to him. ‘Archie, you must never, never wander off when we’re out.’
‘I didn’t. Daddy just went like this.’ Archie did a beckoning motion with his hand. ‘And he did this,’ Archie put his finger to his lips, ‘just like in school when we have to be quiet and not say anything. It was Daddy so I knew it was okay,’ he continued earnestly.
Marnie held his arms and looked into his eyes. Even if it’s Daddy, you mustn’t go off without telling me. I have been so worried. She saw understanding dawn in his eyes which soon filled with tears.
‘I’m sorry, Mummy.’
‘It’s okay now. I’m happy now I know you’re safe. Go and sort out your Lego, and I’ll see you when Daddy brings you home later.’ She gave Archie a final hug and gave Georgie a long, angry stare.
Just at that moment, Becca arrived.
‘I’ve found him. He was with his father.’ Marnie was so consumed with anger she found it hard to get the words out.
Becca seemed to assess the situation. ‘Is Archie staying with his father?’
‘Yes, for the rest of the afternoon, and he’s bringing him home later, isn’t that right, Georgie?’
‘Yup. I guess Marnie needs to take one of her tranquilisers and lie down for a bit after this fiasco,’ he sneered, putting his arm protectively around Archie.
‘Right. Marnie, let’s get a coffee and have a chat.’ Although she sounded her usual, detached self, Marnie noticed an element of sympathy in Becca’s voice. She spoke into her radio, calling off the search as they headed out of the department store to the nearest coffee shop.
Once they were walking along with two takeout coffees, Becca said, ‘So, can you fill me in on what just happened back there?’
Marnie was amazed at how cool-headed she felt. This wasn’t about her, it was about Archie, and for the moment he was safe and happy, that was all that mattered.
She told Becca the story of the last five years, and between sips of coffee, Becca listened intently.
‘So, are you telling me that Georgie deliberately lured Archie away to make you look as if you weren’t capable of looking after him properly?’ There was a tinge of anger in Becca’s voice.
‘I know it seems bonkers, but yes, that’s exactly what I’m telling you,’ said Marnie firmly.
‘Not as bonkers as you think. In this job, I’ve seen people do all sorts of things to get their own way. We’ll be questioning Georgie about this and possibly charging him with wasting police resources.’ Becca paused. ‘And I suggest you get some legal advice,’ she added, firmly.
When Georgie returned Archie later that afternoon, Marie refused to make eye contact, closing the door firmly as soon as the goodbyes had been said.
Once Archie was settled in bed, Marnie sat with a glass of wine and reflected on what had happened. Something had caused a monumental shift in her thinking, and she had seen a glimpse of the old, pre-Archie, Marnie. She thought back…
She and Georgie had met in the Student’s Union bar at the UEA where Marnie had been finishing her Geography MA on the lost rivers of Norwich. It was a subject that held endless fascination – how did a river vanish, or become ‘lost’? Sipping her wine, Marnie thought of the Great Cockey that had once flowed near the bustling market where events had unfolded earlier. It hadn’t just been Archie and the Great Cockey that had been lost – it was Marnie herself.
She had been lost, in a dark, underground place for five years. But today was the day that she had found herself, as well as Archie. Somehow, a strength had come to her enabling her to face anything and anybody – even Georgie, if it meant that Archie was safe. That meant that she was a mother, good, bad or indifferent. Marnie realised that she had heard what Sam said – really heard, and she had stopped judging herself – making everything about the weak, needy, Marnie, who was trying to prove…what? That she was worthy of Archie?
No more! Things were different now – she didn’t have to prove her worthiness to Georgie or anyone else. She was his mother.
Six months later, Marnie sat in the school hall, watching Archie play an angel in the Christmas play, feeling as if her heart would burst with pride. Miss Webster had cast Archie well – with his blond curls and clear singing voice, he was every bit an angel.
Now that he was living full-time with Marnie, she had learnt that he wasn’t always an angel in real life, but she had got to know that sensitive, caring, sometimes boisterous and demanding little individual, that was Archie.
Marnie had taken Becca’s advice, and once Georgie realised that Marnie had ‘lawyered up’ as he put it, his arrogance and emotional manipulation shrank and disappeared like the air from a punctured balloon. Within a few months, following a few letters from Marnie’s solicitor, he had meekly agreed that Archie should live with her, and that he would have access at the weekends. Lately, however, it seemed that he had a new, pregnant girlfriend and the visits had become sporadic. Marnie had wondered if she should warn this girl about what lay in store for her, but decided against it, thinking that the girl would probably think of her as the ‘bitter ex.’ She knew instinctively that’s what Georgie would be saying.
Now that Archie was at school, Marnie had been able to rekindle her fascination with the hidden history of Norwich, and was now employed, part-time, as a guide for walking tours around her beloved city. Now that Marnie was no longer lost herself, she had ideas for a book about Norwich’s lost past. She could already envisage the chapter titles in her head.