I wrote the following short story a few months ago and since then have swayed back and forth whether to send it into competitions. Following my recent post on The Cost of Competitions and the informed and lively discussion afterwards I have decided to share Sofia here instead.
So, when you have a few minutes to spare I hope you have a chance to read the story -perhaps snuggled up in your favourite corner, a coffee / tea to hand plus the odd biscuit or chocolate too!
The first half of the story appears below – to read it all including the final half please click here.
With two chipped mugs balanced precariously on a tray Inspector Nunn kicked the door closed and placed the drinks in front of Jane. She hardly noticed the tea sloshing onto the plate of scattered rich tea biscuits.
“Sorry about that Mrs Terence. Please continue,” said Inspector Nunn, as he reached for a soggy biscuit and dunked it in his tea.
“I noticed the man’s voice, that second time I saw him. He was restrained and quite embarrassed to start with, calling out for his daughter.
“He didn’t seem too worried and then there was a sudden, almost hysterical urgency in his call.
“By now he was much more frantic and as he ran past me I saw his long brown hair unfurled from his ponytail. Ragged and knotted. He took a few steps along the path, and then his head swiveled round, as he scanned his surroundings. Helpless. Searching, with that haunted look. Perhaps that’s why nobody helped. Not at first anyway.
“He shouted her name again and again; the last syllable stressed and short.” “Mrs Terence…” interrupted Inspector Nunn.
“Jane. When was the first time you saw him?”
“Sorry. We saw him only a couple of hours earlier. Ellie – that’s my daughter – and I bumped right into him. Into him and his little girl. Sofia, I assume. The two girls started talking, in that peculiar fashion of four-year olds. There was silence, followed by a couple of words, then some pointing. Ellie mentioned the sloth we’d just visited. That’s why we hadn’t seen them; we were blinded by the sunlight as we stepped out of the dark corridor. Ellie hadn’t been too impressed by the sloth, if I’m honest. It did rather resemble a slab of fur…”
“Jane, what about Sofia? How did she seem?”
“She was happy, excited even. I guess it was her first time at the zoo. She was buzzing after their encounter with the golden tamarins; she danced around us, her light red hair floating behind her, the locks bouncing on her back. Beautiful. A tamarin had snatched the bottle of drink from the man’s rucksack, but luckily the staff had retrieved it quickly. That explained why Sofia was clutching the bottle in one hand and in the other a sheep. I remember that. In a zoo full of exotic animals she carried around a cuddly sheep. Pretty boring, I thought.”
“Did you try to help? Did you try to stop him? To talk to him?”
“He was too fast, you see. He didn’t stop. Didn’t even really say anything else. Perhaps I should have done something, anything. Yes, I was a bit afraid. After all I was on my own here, with little Ellie. I should have forced him to stop, tried to help him. He was just so large – a body building type with a tight black T-shirt with weird silver writing on it. Look at me. At five foot six, I felt tiny next to him. Vulnerable even. I did have to think of Ellie.”
“Thank you for waiting Mr..?”
“Elwood. Martin Elwood. I don’t know how I can help you. I didn’t see anything.”
“Anything you can tell us will help. Trust me. When did you arrive today?” asked Inspector Nunn, as he munched away on the final sodden biscuit, his tea long since finished.
“I got here first thing this morning, just as the zoo was opening. In the summer we bought one of those Gold Cards, giving us free admission for a year. It’s great value for money. Have you got any children, Officer?”
“Inspector. Yes, I have two. Carry on.”
“Shh…Don’t talk too loud, they’re fast asleep, they’ve just had their bottles. It was my first time here with the twins on my own.”
“The man, Mr Elwood. When did you notice him?”
“That was right away, in the car park. He was with the little girl in the van as I pulled up. It was a white van with the name of a builder on it. His own business I assumed, although I did wonder why he wasn’t working. In this recession didn’t think anyone could afford take time off willy-nilly?”
“How about you? Why were you here on a Tuesday?”
“I’m a pilot and work erratic hours – crazy working life – I bet yours is a bit like that, Officer?”
“Again, it’s Inspector. Do continue but less about my life please,” replied Inspector Nunn. “How did they seem?”
“Fine I suppose,” replied Martin. “The girl was talking non-stop, playing with a little sheep. I saw her singing “Baa Baa Black Sheep” and that made me smile.”
“Well, because it was a white sheep of course. The whole time the guy seemed distracted, stared ahead, ignoring his sweet daughter. That was pretty cold of him, if you ask me. I couldn’t do that.”
“Didn’t he talk to her at all?”
“Oh, well, I suppose now you ask, he did look at her a couple of times, stroked her hair even, but with sadness. I mean, why come to a zoo if you’re gong to be a miserable sod?
“At the entrance till we stood behind him. He was one of those who obviously don’t feel the cold. This morning there was still a slight frost, early for mid-October, but a definite chill and even I got my coat on. He seemed one of those macho types, wearing just a T-shirt advertising a heavy metal band or such. What a contrast to the girl! What was her name? Sophie you said earlier?”
“Sorry, Sofia. She wore a pretty red dress with lots of layers, a red cardigan with white lace and matching white plimsolls. Dressed for a party I thought. The zoo does hold them you know but it did seem odd, as no one turned up to greet them and there were no other children in party clothes.”
“When did you see them next?”
“Quite a bit later, by the giraffes. The man was a bit more engaged then, you could say. The girl was on his shoulders, and she reached out with her free hand to stroke the giraffe. It lowered its head and then suddenly stuck out its tongue. A thick wedge of black flesh licked her hand, she squealed in shock, startling us all. Her dad took a step backwards and stumbled over the pushchair. It nearly tipped over and with a scream my boys woke up. Great, they’d only been asleep for a few minutes! Yes, I suppose that is selfish but I – they – needed their rest. The man did say sorry but his accent was so heavy I barely understood him.”
“He wasn’t her father.”
“That’s strange, who was he then?” “Her uncle.”
“Good Afternoon Miss..?”
“Beaumont. My first name is Bethany. I just heard the witness muttering as he left. Something about the guy not being Sofia’s dad. Are you sure? They seemed so close.”
“Please Bethany, tell me first what were you doing here today? And why were you so sure that they were father and daughter? What makes you such an expert?”
“I never said I was an expert. I just see a lot. I’ve been working here for two years; came straight from school. I pride myself on working out the visitors relationship to each other, kills time at the ice-cream kiosk I tell you.
“He acted with the love of a father. Sure, he looked different, but I’m not your normal twenty-year old either with all my piercings.
“My Mum despairs, especially when I had my tongue done last monh. Sofia liked it though; she touched the stud and all. Her dad…uncle…didn’t seem to mind at all.
“She’d just come from the African area and the giraffes. There was a bit of a scare I heard. The ice cream was to comfort her. The Calippo lolly was clasped in both her hands, they must have been freezing. A sheep? No, I didn’t see her holding anything, just the ice-lolly. The man wasn’t holding anything either. He bought a 99 Flake and we had a long chat about that. Yes, he did seem foreign but his English was fine. What did we talk about? Oh you know, the usual, in this case the ice cream. Why didn’t it cost 99p instead of the two pounds? Inflation, that’s what I said. Of course it didn’t help that he had all the trimmings, including a flake, sprinkles and sauce. They seemed like any normal visitors – no, I take that back. They were different, friendlier, not too many stop for a chat with me.”
Copyright ©Annika Perry
To read the rest of the story please press here and read on from page 6.