Crying Out Loud

Cath Staincliffe

Crying Out Loud

The eighth book in the Sal Kilkenny series, 2011

For Mum and Dad, with love

ONE

There was a baby on my doorstep.

A baby in a stroller.

One of those three-wheelers that can go anywhere.

I looked over to the gateway, waiting for whoever had rung the doorbell to appear; for some responsible adult to come sashaying up the path and make the picture right. Make my heart stop thumping. Why was it thumping? Did I know even then that something was amiss?

I crouched down. The baby was small – an infant, not a toddler. It was sleeping, its arms lying palm up either side of its head. A faint tremor crossed its eyelids; eyelids with a faint blush of blue. It wore a padded, fleecy white all-in-one with the hood up and fold-over gloves. There was a yellow blanket tucked around its legs and peeping out of the top a note, a page of lined paper from a small notebook, the bottom torn unevenly. Block capitals, blue biro: PLEASE LOOK AFTER MY BABY. DON’T TELL ANYONE. I’LL EXPLAIN LATER. ‘Please’ was underlined three times. Then a blurry scrawl – was it a name or just a random scribble? The beginning looked like an ‘h’ but the rest of it dribbled off in a wavy line. The word looked like ‘henna’ or ‘ham’. Was it simply a slip of the pen? A fragment from a shopping list?

I stepped past the buggy and ran to the pavement; scanned the street. An eddy of wind caught a pile of autumn leaves, shed from the limes that lined the road, and whirled them round. Ghost town.

I stared at the parked cars, searching for a telltale silhouette or any hint of motion. Our house is halfway along the street, only fifty yards from the main road. I ran down there and scoured the place. The large semi-detached houses that lined the route all had that abandoned, shuttered, mid-afternoon look. People at work, at school. There was no one by the corner shop or the hairdressers next door. No one at either bus stop. The only two souls, an elderly couple, were walking towards our junction, not running away as you would if you’d just abandoned your baby.

Retracing my steps, my mind was buzzing with questions. Whose baby? Boy or girl? How old? What’s happened? Should I tell someone? Why me?

People hire me for all sorts of jobs: I’m a private eye. I find people or check them out; I uncover lies and track betrayals. It might be a missing son or a cheating wife, an employee pilfering goods or a gold-digger after a profitable match. I skulk about and ask awkward questions. I dig up dirt and orchestrate reunions. I don’t offer childcare.

My pulse was still racing and my mouth dry. The back of my neck prickled and my guts were clenched with adrenalin. Innate responses, I imagine, to finding a lone infant. A babe alone is a frightening thing. Vulnerable. Doomed if I didn’t save it. I took a breath, smelt the earthy scent of the leaves and the sweet fragrance of a neighbour’s late-flowering roses. The breath of wind cooled the perspiration on my neck and at my temples. It’s all right, I reassured myself. It’ll be all right.

The baby was still there as I walked up the path. No mistake, no illusion. Just deal with it, I thought. Take it in. Make a cup of tea. Calm down and think it through.

There was another gust of wind; I heard the leaves on the eucalyptus at the back of the house rattle and clatter. And the bang as my front door slammed shut.

We were locked out.

Ray would be at work until teatime. We keep a spare key at the neighbours’ house opposite. It was worth a try even though Jill works full-time. I wheeled the buggy round into our back garden, out of sight. The baby stirred and gave a sigh like a stutter, and for a moment I thought it was going to wake up. And then what would I do? My high anxiety gave me pause for thought, made me smile. It’s a baby, I told myself, just a baby. It’s not a lion or a cockroach or a snake. It won’t pounce or scuttle when it wakes and you’ve handled a baby before, Sal – you’re no novice. It had been eight years since Maddie had been born. Perspective, I admonished myself. Now find a key.

There was no answer over the road but there was one more place I could try – the Dobsons’ house around the corner, where I have a basement office. They have four daughters at various stages of teenage and young adulthood and one or other of them is often at home revising or on study leave or sometimes bunking off. The older girls babysit for Maddie, my daughter, and Tom, Ray’s son. It hit me then: the second girl, Abi, was pregnant, to the disappointment of her parents who were very keen on their children getting a decent university education before starting a family. Could this be her baby? A weird quid pro quo for all the times she’d minded our kids? Had she even had her baby yet? Surely they’d have told me, a friend of the family, their sleuth in the cellar.

I couldn’t leave the baby in the garden while I went round there. OK, it was asleep and out of sight, but what if something happened? I was in loco parentis – stress the loco. Besides, our garden is a haven for wildlife. I couldn’t leave the baby at the mercy of the squirrels and foxes, herons and magpies.

The breeze was pushing fat white clouds across the sky and the nip of autumn was in the air. The light had that mellow, melancholy quality to it. Wheeling the buggy along the road, I felt extremely awkward. It had been years since I’d pushed a pram but more than that I felt guilty, as though someone would ambush me and ask me what the hell I was playing at. This must be what it’s like when someone snatches a baby. Had this baby been stolen? Was I an unwitting conspirator in some criminal enterprise? An abduction or kidnap? I should check the news to see if there’d been any report of a baby abduction. Kidnapping was often kept quiet and off the radar. They introduce a news blackout mainly because the kidnappers always insist the police must not be involved and the police play along – it’s safer that way. So if the baby had been kidnapped, how would I know? Then again, why would a kidnapper leave their hostage with me? My thoughts were getting muddled: a tangle of what ifs and maybes.

The Dobsons’ house is similar to ours: a large redbrick semi built at the start of the twentieth century, with Tudor trim and stained glass. I rang the bell and studied the colours in the glass roundel on the door: ruby, cobalt and emerald, and waited for a shadow to swim out from behind them. No one came. The baby slept on.

Back in our garden, I got myself a few handfuls of water from the outdoor tap. A shock like this makes you thirsty. I sat on the patio beside the pond and gazed out at the plants, steadying myself, and let my eye roam over the Michaelmas daisies still ablaze with purple, the seed heads of the giant poppies and the eucalyptus, its grey-green leaves whipping in the wind, long strips of rusty bark peeling from the trunk.

I studied the baby’s face. It had delicate and pretty features, not like those potato-head babies you see. This one had a pointy chin and a tiny nose; its skin was a creamy white, translucent over its eyelids. I watched it sleep for a few moments and saw that flickering of its eyes again. What was it dreaming of? Milk? Mummy? What do babies dream of if they haven’t learnt to name the world, to navigate the world; do the dreams make any sense?

When I examined the contents in the mesh compartment slung underneath the stroller, I found a dozen nappies and a tub of baby wipes, a change of clothes and a roll of thin, slightly spongy plastic which I realized was a portable changing mat. In a padded feeding bag I found two bottles and a tin of baby-milk formula. What if the baby woke up before I got back in the house? It would be screaming for a feed and I couldn’t make that with cold water. I peered in through the kitchen window. My stomach twisted when I saw that it was almost three o’clock.

We set out again and I rang Ray reverse charges from the phone box on the way to collect Maddie and Tom from school.

‘Can you get away early? I’m locked out and no one with a spare key is home.’

Ray gave an exasperated sigh. Like getting locked out was some irritating habit I had developed just to annoy him.

‘Or we could all just sit on the step until you get back – it doesn’t look like rain,’ I prodded.

‘I’ll leave now,’ he replied, still an edge of tension in his tone. I didn’t mind. While he was bound up with his own reaction to my inconvenient demands, he wouldn’t pick out anything odd in my voice. I was afraid the stress was leaking out down the phone-wire. A gush of anxiety to match the gnawing sensation in my belly. If we kept talking surely it was only a matter of time before he’d pause and ask: ‘Is everything all right?’

I ended the call. ‘Thanks, see you soon.’

Ray has a lowly job in advertising now and it’s a fairly flexible set-up as long as he delivers the goods. We used to be platonic housemates – two single parents, a child apiece, but in the last few months we’d become lovers, to the amusement of our long-standing friends and acquaintances, my own astonishment and the despair of his mother. She had always been convinced we were sleeping together when we weren’t and never missed a chance to run me down. When Ray did get seriously involved with his last girlfriend, Laura, I couldn’t put a foot wrong as far ...

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