Walking out of the local supermarket and into the main mall area three months ago, I saw a toddler, aged around three, standing near a toy car—you know the ones, you put your child behind the steering wheel, feed the slot a dollar, and the thing lights up, growling and shaking, to the utter delight of the young.
She was blonde, barefooted, and dressed a little raggedy, but she had an inner beauty, an exuberance, and a sense of wonder that, despite the weight of my bags and the prospect of a plod to my car in scorching thirty six degree sunshine, made me chuckle.
As I drew level, she stood on the car’s pedestal and called to someone behind me. ‘Daddy, daddy, look!’
Hearing a rough, throaty male voice echo through the mall, several people including myself stopped to look around. ‘‘Get off that fucking thing!’
The little girl, appearing not to hear, began to climb into the car’s driving seat. Her fascination with the machine was intense—as if she’d never set eyes on anything like it before. Perhaps from the country, I thought.
In the next moment, a thin, shaven-haired, thuggish-looking guy around thirty rushed to the girl, gripped her by one arm, and hauled her from the machine. His pale, hawkish face was twisted with ferocious anger—almost feral.
As he viciously bent the girl’s arm and her leg slammed against the toy car, she screamed in pain.
It was over in seconds, with half a dozen of us spectators left gawping in horror and shock as the man disappeared around a corner in the direction of the mall’s exit. Gradually, muttering in disapproval, we began to disperse and move in our intended directions.
Feeling nauseated, and trying to come to terms with a sense of guilt, I walked towards the car park wondering what I could or should have done. It had happened too quickly, I rationalised. The guy was probably on drugs—he looked like a junky, all emaciated and mean-looking—so any interference may have had terrible consequences for the girl and for me for that matter. He may have been carrying a weapon—he looked the type. Anyway, my involvement would have enmeshed me in witness statements, possible court appearances, maybe even some retribution from the guy himself. And for what? It’s possible the girl was an impossibly naughty creature and the incident was the culmination of a day of enormous parental frustration.
Beginning to walk across the deserted car park, I heard a terrible wailing. It was the girl, perhaps a hundred metres away, held against a battered old truck and being beaten with a length of plastic piping.
I was paralysed. I didn’t know what to do. My hands were full of shopping bags, it was unbearably hot, and there was nobody else around to help. The guy was also probably half my age and, built like a whip, would make mincemeat out of me. As the girl’s cries became shriller, battering my ears, and the heat seared mercilessly up from the concrete, I felt like throwing up. Was this like being in hell?
Luckily that entire incident never happened. I made it up. The questions are: what emotions did it evoke? How did you feel about the girl, the father, and me? Did my inertia and pathetic rationalising make you angry? Were you imagining yourself in the same circumstances, and wondering what you would have done?
Sometimes we have to cause readers some discomfort. It’s not all about feeling good. If we can bring their emotions to the surface, make them angry, distressed, or even confused about how they feel, we’re doing our work.
What was the last piece of fiction you read that upset you?