Debbie left her handbag on the table.
This was deliberate. Grand’mere sat in front of the fan, in her usual place by the kitchen window where she could watch the Paris suburb streets. She had removed the black scarf from her head and her grey hair rose in small wispy strands in the cool draught from the fan. Her forehead, where the scarf hid her face down as far as her eyes, and tightly up under her chin, was beaded in sweat and she turned her face to the rush of cool air.
She would not notice the handbag and, for now at any rate, the significance of it would be lost on her. It was almost the only thing Debbie owned. In it she had left one of Mustafa’s dummies and Jasmina’s wax crayons. There was also a small packet of tissues and a 20 centime coin. She had removed the four Euros, and they sat in her pocket, literally the only money she possessed. The handbag made a statement for her: “I’ll be back soon”.
She hitched Mustafa onto her hip and took Jasmina’s hand.
“It is so hot,” she said in French to Grand’mere, “I’d like to buy ice creams for the children ….?”
As she had hoped, the old lady reached over to a shelf at her side and pulled several coins out of a jar. Hesitating just a second, she then extracted a twenty Euro note.
“Get some coffee, ma puce,” she replied in her habitual mix of Arabic and heavily-accented French, “and some fruit if it’s not too much to carry.”
Debbie tucked the money in to her pocket, aware of the cellotape around her middle making a faint scratchy sound as she did so. For a split second a small wave of regret passed through her. Grand’mere had always been kind to her. She looked at the wrinkled face and felt sad as she realized she would almost certainly never see it again.
“Leave les enfants with me if you like,” now said the old lady, “it’ll be quicker for you.”
Debbie was ready for this.
“Oh, no – merci – they want to choose their own ice creams and I thought I’d take them to the swings for a while too.”
This was a risk. Hussein didn’t like her to go to the swings. Grand’mere could tell her no, to come straight back, but she didn’t comment. Going to the swings gave her more time, at least half an hour more, before she was missed. Hussein and his father would not be back for several hours, though Fatima could arrive at any moment.
Trying to not rush, Debbie made her way down the concrete staircase out of the block of flats. The children’s buggy lived in a lock-up in the entrance area. It was a dank corner at the foot of the stairs and always smelt of urine. She had already put a carrier bag of a few essentials in there – a couple of nappies, a change of clothes for the children – plausible things that nobody would question.
“Allez, vite!” she urged as the children scrambled in to place on the buggy. They were used to it. Jasmina got in first and hitched her legs right back, leaving just enough room for Mustafa to perch in front of her. She strapped them in quickly, sweat already pouring off her face, and set off at a brisk pace across the tarmac towards the road.
It was too early to smile. Far too early. If she got it wrong she would never see the children again.
Her route took her past the other council flats. Flies swarmed around the dustbins. She was tempted to glance back to see if Grand’mere was looking out of the window and, in case she was, Debbie forced herself to walk calmly, if briskly. She wanted to run. Everything in her screamed at her to run, but she knew she must not.
At the road she turned left towards the ice cream shop and the swings. She was pretty sure that Grand’mere, if she was watching, which she probably wasn’t, would not be able to see this point in the road, but she couldn’t take any chances. Fifty metres later she crossed over and took the first right and then right again, bringing her back on to the main road further up. Then she ran. Pushing the buggy in front of her, the children squealing in delight, she tried to pretend it was a game and to look like a carefree mum taking the kids for a ride. It was very hot, devastatingly hot, and the heat seeped up off the pavement and off the walls around her. She crossed the road at the traffic lights and then went down in to the underground pass and up the other side. She ran when she could, walked as quickly as she was able, and the children, totally unaware of what was happening to them, sat in contented silence as the streets of Paris unfolded around them. Sometimes they looked up at their mother and she grinned at them, but mostly they clung laughingly on to the sides of the buggy as Debbie headed for the better part of the city.
At the roundabout she hailed a taxi. She glanced nervously about as she got the children and the buggy in. She was already two or three miles from the flats, the furthest she’d been in almost three years. Nobody knew her in this part of town.
“Hotel Bois d’Amour,” she told the driver.
Fighting back a sudden panicky weepiness, Debbie permitted herself a small smile. She settled herself and the children on to the seat and sat back before she reached under her T-shirt, pulled at the cellotape and retrieved the passports.