Have you ever seen an episode of Deal or No Deal? You end up with a choice between boxes. Yours, and another contestant’s. Inside is a tag telling you how much money you’ve won. You can either choose a box and find out your winnings, or if your nerves have gotten the better of you, you can take a deal instead. Everyone’s standing there looking tense while the phone rings and Noel Edmonds heads over to hear the offer at hand.
Now you’ve got the scene in your head, you can imagine the knot in my stomach at the moment I picked up the phone to hear the deal being offered to me. Except mine wasn’t a life-changing amount of money. It was another kind of life-changing all together.
I had Maisie at 17 years old. It was a typical case of stupid teenagers not understanding the importance of correct contraceptive measures and a bit of rebelling against my parents for not approving of my then-boyfriend, Danny. They were right, obviously.
She was beautiful. I know everyone says that about their own child, but I never anticipated the fullness of my heart that would occur from the moment I set my eyes upon her. Danny was around for a while, but he never felt the same way about Maisie. He saw her as a mistake and couldn’t get past that long enough to marvel at our creation.
Honestly, that was fine. I was more than happy to settle down in a small two-bed flat with my girl. She was suddenly the most important thing in my life. A man would have gotten in the way – been ignored.
My mother, despite being upset when she discovered I’d gotten pregnant, was thrilled to be a grandma. I couldn’t get her away from Maisie and each time she came to visit, there was a new toy, or dress, or something in tow.
After Maisie’s fourth birthday, I had to have a clear out. You could barely see the floor for the excessive piles of toys in her bedroom. And it was in the charity shop on the high street, while I was lugging two black sacks behind me, that I first laid eyes on George. He was volunteering on Saturdays to get in touch with his emotions and give back to the world. Adorably lame, I’d told him.
He was a total hipster, wire framed glasses and a Thomas Shelby haircut. Totally different from “my type”, yet he had my attention all the same. It wasn’t long before we were grabbing dinner or taking trips to the cinema on a regular basis. Finally, I thought, I get a good guy. Not only was he a good guy, but he was amazing with my daughter. Maisie adored him, he treated her like his own. I asked him to move in with us 10 months after we met and was delighted when he said yes. We began living together and… well, it was wonderful. He was good with keeping the place clean and he made the effort to be romantic with me once we’d bathed and read to Mai before bed. I was hook, line and sinker. He seemed to be too.
Bang. I was in the kitchen, making Maisie some dinner, when the front door slammed shut.
“George?” I called out. The door did that sometimes when there was a draught through the house. When nobody answered, I wandered into the sitting room, where I’d left Maisie playing moments before.
The room was empty – my first thought was that Maisie had snuck out. Panic struck me with a painful throb.
Her room was empty too. Our flat was on the second floor, but when I ran down the stairs and looked outside I saw nothing. Her 5 year old legs couldn’t have taken her that far.
I was holding back tears as I fumbled with my phone and called George. Voicemail. I rang my mum next and she was belting herself up in the car to drive over before she’d even hung up the call. Maisie was gone. My knees went weak and I crumpled in the car park of my block of flats.
Sort yourself out and find your daughter.
I dialled 999 as I bucked myself up and headed back up to my flat. Maybe she’s hiding under her bed? I thought hopefully, though I didn’t end the emergency call just in case. It was unlike Maisie to play games with me. It felt manic to think that she’d wandered out of the flat, that someone had snatched her, in the short space of time she was out of my sight. Without me hearing a thing. It didn’t make sense.
Back in my flat, I confirmed my fears: Maisie wasn’t hiding anywhere. She was really gone. I hurriedly told the police my address and pulled on some shoes to go out and look for her properly. Not too far, the police told me. It’s better to stay home, she’s probably wandered off and will need someone to come back to when she finds her way. It was when I was bent down, tying the loose laces of my trainers, that I noticed a note had been slid under the door.
I have Maisie. What would you do to get her back?
Under my breath, I whispered: anything.
We were sat in my living room: me, my mother and two uniformed policemen.
They took it seriously. When George’s phone consistently went to voicemail they asked the questions I couldn’t face. How well do you really know him? What if I had let a monster into our home for the past few months? What if he’d been playing some sick little game just to take my daughter away?
I couldn’t believe it. George was such a sweetheart, even my mum totally adored him. I sent him a text, telling him that Mai was missing and that, if he had anything to do with it, please just bring her home.
George didn’t reply straight away, but seconds later my mobile phone dinged with a message from an unknown number.
Don’t talk to the police. Maisie is safe, but only if you do what I say.
I tapped back quickly, my heart racing: What do you want from me? I’ll do anything to get her back.
The response came back as quickly as my reply had been sent. Just do as I say. I’ll be in touch.
I didn’t want the conversation to end so soon, but I was stuck for anything to say other than, give my girl back to me. I got the sense that would agitate the situation somewhat.
I flicked my eyes up to see that my mother was looking at me quizzically.
“You all there hun?”
“Yeah,” I gave her a said smile. “Just want to find Mai.”
“We all do. And we will. Was that from George?” She nodded towards my phone. I shook my head as a fresh bout of tears began. She pulled me into a hug and shushed me like she had when I was young. “Everything will be alright, hun.”
Her words just made me cry harder.
Although I hadn’t told the police – or my mum – about the text messages, they had my note. The police decided that they’d send it off for a million-and-one kinds of analysis: fingerprints, handwriting, type of pen, type of paper… everything you could imagine. They told me over and over that the first hours were the most important and that we’d done everything right.
Then they told me we’d have to tread carefully with announcing she was missing, because of the nature of the case.
It was frustrating, knowing I’d be able to get her back, if whoever had taken her would just tell me what they wanted. The police finally left, with promises of being in touch. I sighed and pulled out my phone.
Please, tell me what I need to do. She deserves to sleep in her own bed tonight.
Considering it was already late into the evening, I knew I was asking for a lot. But I couldn’t help wondering about whether it was George who had taken her. Had I done something to seriously piss him off?
I’ll call you at 9pm.
I glanced at my watch – 9pm was in 18 minutes. My mother had just finished making me a cup of tea and brought it into the room. I didn’t want her to be there when I took the call. Who knew what I’d have to say or do to get her back.
“I think you should head home,” I said quietly. “I’m just going to sit here and wait for the next note, or George, or maybe even Maisie.”
“I can stay tonight,” she protested for a moment, before clocking my expression and changing her tune. “Ok, I’ll head off in a bit.”
“Actually, I’m sorry but I think I’d just like to be alone now.”
She nodded briefly. I knew she felt snubbed and made a mental note to make it up to her. Once she’d gone I checked the time again and placed my phone in front of me in the kitchen. Waiting.
It was 9:30 by the time the call was finished and I’d dug out a piece of paper and a pen to write the note.
Dear Maisie, George,
I’m so sorry that things came to this. I love you so so much and I don’t expect you to understand. George, I trust you to look after our girl for me. Don’t let her forget her mother.
I could have written more, but I was running out of time and there weren’t words that could say what I wanted to anyway. I snapped a picture and sent it to the unknown number. I zipped on my coat, picked up my phone and grabbed a knife for the kitchen before leaving the flat. Just in case.
Danny had told me to go to the park we used to hang out at. He was waiting on the swing set, despite the drizzle.
“Where is she?” I called out before we were close enough to speak at a normal volume. He waited until I was in front of him before responding.
“She’s with George. She’s fine, I’ve let them both go.”
“Have you got proof?”
He pulled out his phone to show me a picture of them – at the same time my phone started pinging with messages.
Mum: George just turned up. He’s got Maisie. Call me.
Before I could even unlock my phone it started buzzing. George was ringing me.
“Don’t answer it Jas,” Danny spoke with a teacher-like tone. “Give it here.”
I handed my phone over obediently. He threw it as far as he could into the trees behind the play park.
“Now keep your promise,” he said quietly, “and come here.”
Danny’s request – the thing that would get my daughter back to safety – was for me to disappear. To never see Maisie again. To never see my family again. To never see George again. He told me to write a note to that effect, take a picture and then leave.
And to make sure of it, he would be my guardian. He was going to take us somewhere “away” and keep me under lock and key. It was warped and I didn’t really know how to react when he’d said the words.
But I’d do anything for Mai. I’d never understood the lengths I would go to before now.
As Danny stood up from the swings, I placed my hand on the grip of the knife I had slid into my pocket before leaving the house.
“I don’t understand why, Danny. Could you at least give me an explanation?”
Danny laughed. “Because you were so happy with that idiot and our child.”
“You never wanted anything to do with her!” My response came out a little louder, a little more emotional, than I expected. I tightened my grip on the knife to suppress the anger that was bubbling.
“Just because I didn’t want her, doesn’t mean any other guy could have her. Or you.”
I lost it. How dare you, I snarled, pulling out the knife and slicing Danny’s neck without a second thought. He made a sound, air was bubbling out of his mouth.
“Jas,” he struggled. I kept going until he was silent.
I put the knife back into my pocket and walked away.
I’d do anything.