The woman marched up and down the shop in a pair of shiny black heels.
‘They look great!’ I said as she eyed her reflection in the full-length mirror. ‘How do they feel?’
Suddenly, Dad burst through the door.
‘It’s George,’ he panted. ‘I’ve lost him.’
Dad was always one for playing the fool. But pretending he’d lost my six-month-old son while he was babysitting?
‘If this is your idea of a joke, it’s not very funny!’ I hissed as the whole shop turned to look at us.
But Dad’s face was ashen. ‘I think you better call the police,’ he said, his gruff voice cracking.
On auto-pilot, I dialled the number. How could George be missing? It had only been a few hours ago that I’d kissed him goodbye at Dad’s house on my way here…
Dad lived round the corner for me and looked after George every day while I went to work. As a single mum, it saved me a fortune on childcare and Dad adored spending time with his grandson.
‘Come here, little man,’ Dad had smiled that very morning, lifting a smiling George out of his buggy.
George’s face broke into a big grin.
‘Here’s his milk,’ I’d said, handing him three expressed bottles. ‘And his nappies. Right, see you this evening.’
Except now, I wouldn’t. Because now he was gone.
No, I pushed the thought to the back of mind. I wouldn’t, couldn’t let myself think like that.
‘Police, please,’ I told the operator. Dad burst into tears.
As I told her the details it felt like it was happening to someone else. Perhaps I knew I had to stay calm because Dad was in such a state?
Within minutes, two officers arrived. The WPC sat next to me in the back room of the shop as Dad explained what had happened.
Around lunch time Dad had taken George ready for a walk in his buggy when he’d bumped into a neighbour.
‘Alright?’ he’d asked as she walked by.
‘Not really, I’m having trouble getting my wages from the cafe where I work,’ she told him. ‘Will you come down there with me?’
‘Sorry, but I’m looking after George today,’ he told her.
‘I’ll wait outside with him while you go in,’ she offered. ‘Please?’
She was young and looked upset. Dad felt sorry for her when she said she had nobody else to ask. ‘OK,’ he agreed.
They walked into central Brighton together.
When they reached the cafe, just two streets away from where I worked, he went inside while she stayed outside with George as agreed.
‘I’ll only be a moment,’ Dad had said.
But when he approached him the owner looked confused. ‘No one of that name works here,’ he said.
Annoyed, Dad went outside to find out what was going on.
But the girl wasn’t there. And neither was George.
‘So I paced up and down looking for them and then I ran straight here,’ he told the officer.
Writing everything down, he asked me what George was wearing – a white GAP T-shirt and navy joggers – and got me to describe his bright orange and electric blue pushchair.
We watched helplessly as he radioed through the information to the station.
‘They’ve got the police helicopter out, they’ll find them,’ he assured me.
The WPC took us back to Dad’s to wait for news.
The hours inched by. As we sat there, willing the phone to ring, my full breasts throbbed.
George will be starving, I thought. The thought of him scared and hungry made me ache. He must need changing by now, too…
‘My baby needs me,’ I repeated over and over.
The pain of being apart was physical.
Dad kept pacing the lounge. ‘I’m so, so sorry love,’ he croaked.
‘It’s not your fault,’ I told him. Dad had never been anything but a fantastic granddad.
I thought about the last six months. It was no time at all really, but George was a part of me. I couldn’t imagine life without him.
I shook my head. No, I wouldn’t let myself think like that.
But as the hours turned by and the sky turned black, so did my thoughts. What if I never saw my son again?
And then the phone rang. ‘Is it him? Have they got him?’ I cried.
The officer stayed silent, just listened and nodded. I studied her face for clues. Eventually she broke into a smile.
‘They’ve found him,’ she told us.
The relief was indescribable. It felt like I could breathe properly again.
‘Take me to him,’ I begged.
They drove us in the police car to a station in Alton in Hampshire near where they’d picked them both up.
‘It’s got to be him, hasn’t it, Dad?’ I said over and over. It was like I couldn’t believe it was true until I’d seen him myself, held him in my arms.
We arrived just after midnight. Exhausted, we staggered from the car.
And as we entered the station I saw him. He was sat laughing in his pushchair, oblivious to everything.
Dad and I both burst into tears. We had him back.
I held him tight. We took him to Brighton’s Royal Sussex County Hospital where, the nurse had to prise him from me to give him the all-clear.
Finally, at eight o’clock that morning, we got back to Dad’s. We were exhausted but George was still smiling.
Those next days, I refused to let George out of my sight. Even though we desperately needed the money, going back to work was out of the question.
So when Dad and I went to Lewes Crown Court the following February to see George’s abductor sentenced, he came too.
In court, the defendant claimed that she was pregnant and had suffered a miscarriage while in prison for blackmail but was too frightened to tell her boyfriend. So aftertricking Dad into leaving George alone with her, she’d taken him on the train to her boyfriend’s mother pretending he was her baby. Suspicious, the woman called the police. It was thanks to her that I’d got my baby back.
The judge called George’s abductor a ‘very devious and dishonest young woman’ and sentenced her to 18 months in a young offenders’ institute for the abduction.
But in my opinion, it was nowhere near long enough for the horror and fear I’d suffered at her hands…and was still suffering. Because every time I looked at George I was haunted by the helpless terror of those eleven hours separated from him not knowing if he was alive or dead.
Dad wasn’t the same, either. Every day he would blame himself for what he’d put me through. He just couldn’t believe that he’d been tricked.
‘How could I not see it coming?’ he’d say, drinking heavily to numb the pain.
‘Stop it, Dad,’ I begged him. ‘You’ll end up sending yourself to an early grave at this rate.’
But he couldn’t shake the guilt. And a year after the kidnapper was jailed he died of a heart attack. He was only 42.
It was a massive blow. Now I really was on my own.
Mumlived in Kent and helped out when she could but she couldn’t make it down very often, so it was all down to me. The burden of responsibility I felt to protect George was overwhelming.
I found it impossible to trust people. If strangers stopped to speak to him in the supermarket I’d quickly turn him away. How did I know they didn’t want to take him, too?
I was so wrapped up in protecting George that I forgot about myself. Relationships were the last thing on my mind. Keeping George safe was my life now.
Friends thought things would be easier when he started school but the thought filled me with panic. His kidnapper was free now, what if she tried to snatch him again?
So I’d arrive at the school gates half an hour before the end the day to make sure I was there when the bell went. I insisted on going on school trips and to his school friends’ parties with him, too.
When George was six I started counselling to try and help me deal with my anxieties. It helped initially but as my counsellor asked me to lessen my grip on George I panicked and started to cancel my appointments.
I’d come up with any excuse possible to avoid him going to his friends’ houses for play dates. I knew the other mothers thought I was overprotective but they didn’t know how it felt to almost lose your child forever.
If George ever made a fuss about wanting to go out I’d bribe him with new toys and games…anything to make him stay at home.
‘If you stay here with me I’ll get you a new game for your Wii,’ I’d bargain with him.
And if the prize wasn’t tempting enough, I’d just up the stakes until it was.
As he grew older his friends always, always came over to our house. I’d get them out a DVD and pizza to watch in the safety of my lounge. I felt awful, caging him like that but I couldn’t help myself. The abduction had scarred me for life.
I’ve explained what happened to him when he was younger to try and help him understand why I act the way I do, but he still gets frustrated. It makes me feel guilty. I know my behaviour is scarring George’s life, too.
‘Mum, you never let me do anything…it’s not fair!’ he whines sometimes. ‘I mean, who’s going to steal me now? I’m almost six foot!’
So when George turned 13 I knew if he wasn’t going to get hassle from his mates, I had to let him bike to his friends alone. After all, not everyone was bad, right?
Still, I felt sick at the thought… until I came up with the idea of following him, just to make sure he arrived safely.
Thenext time he popped out to his pal’s I gave it ten seconds, then slipped out the door behind him.
The relief I felt actually seeing him arrive at their house and knowing he was where he said he was was immense.
So I did the same the next time…and the next. Yes, I follow George every time I he goes out. I know it’s not a long-term solution and I know it’s only a matter of time before I get caught but I really don’t know what else to do.
People think when an abducted child is found, the story is over and everyone can move on. But that woman’s actions ruined my life. But I’m determined they won’t ruin my son’s life, too.