She was invisible; a tiny child in a gigantic city.
She was alone; her mother had vanished, swallowed up by the Christmas shopping crowd.
She was distressed; in a sea of anxious and unhappy faces, hers expressed a deeper pain.
She was a lost child.
If I hadn’t almost tripped over Rachel I probably wouldn’t have seen her at all; even then I wouldn’t have stopped, if it hadn’t been for her face.
I’d never seen so many powerful emotions compressed in such a tiny space; fear and confusion, shock and sadness, disbelief and distrust raced across her face like time-lapsed weather photography. It was a face with something important to say but no words to say it with.
Not knowing what to do, I did what I always do: I tried to get a picture of what had happened in the hope it would tell me what should happen next. Where did you lose your mother? How long ago? Where was she heading and in which direction? What was she wearing?
Rachel had no answers so all we could do was stay put and wait for her mother to retrace her steps. I lead Rachel out of the rush, thinking the more visible she was, the better. I thought about phoning the police but what could they do that I was not already doing? Why did I even think of that? Because like everybody else, I was in a hurry; I wanted this kid to be someone else’s responsibility.
But you don’t always get to choose what someone will need you to be responsible for.
I scanned the sea of faces, for although I had no idea what Rachel’s mum looked like, I knew what to look for: the exact storm of emotions I had seen in the face of her child.
And there she was. The same complex expression flew out from the crowd and swooped down on the child. A hand wriggled free of the shopping bags, grabbed the girl and dragged her back into the maelstrom.
And just like that, Rachel was gone.
But in my mind I keep seeing that tiny face, that jumble of powerful emotions, trying, without words, to tell me something important. And two days later, I’m beginning to think I know what it might be.
That, in all the rush and panic to make things perfect, to please and impress others, to achieve and share happiness we can lose our grip on the precious, tiny things we already have; the ones that truly matter.