The shopping centre’s toilet had such an awful stink that it was difficult to breathe. I pulled the door open to leave, but couldn’t take another step because my path was blocked by a burly man talking to a girl with ringlets down her back. Why did they have to stand here? Couldn’t they stand somewhere else?
“Excuse me.” I am still ashamed that my tone that day was curt.
They moved aside. I walked past them and couldn’t help hearing what the man was saying.
“Don’t worry. You go to the toilet,” he said. “Papa will stay here.” So that was why he was standing outside the ladies’ room in the first place. In spite of his reassuring words, there was no doubting the anxiety in his voice.
“Papa,” the girl replied, “please come in with me. Please?”
I slowed down. What would the man say? What could he say?
“I can’t. I have to wait outside.”
Should I go back? But it wasn’t my child. It wasn’t my problem.
I heard her say, “OK, Papa. I will go in.”
I stopped walking. That tone. I recognised it. It was the same one that seven-year-old me had used. Petrified, I had dragged Mummy by the hand to stand guard in front of the toilet. I had believed that the toilet-ghost would eat me up while I was peeing. And our toilet had been inside our house. This little one needed to use a public toilet all alone.
I retraced my steps and reached them before the huge tears fell from the child’s eyes.
“Excuse me. Maybe I can help.”
The father turned to me. Before he could register the intrusion, I said, “Don’t worry. I’ll go inside and stay with her.”
He sighed and pulled his jacket close, the relief and gratitude in equal measure washing over his face.
I ushered the girl into the toilet and she ran to the nearest cubicle. I spent the next few minutes practising holding my breath for as long as I could.
When she came out, I held her shoulders and guided her to the sink. I turned the tap and this tiny brown human stood on tiptoes to wash her hands. When she turned her head, I looked down into huge brown eyes. Shyly, she bit her bottom lip and smiled.
I smiled back and said, “Come. Dry your hands and let’s go back to your Papa.”
Moments later she leaned against her father’s legs and both of them looked at me.
“Thank you, ver-” His voice broke.
I shook my head and blurted out, “No problem. If ever my child needs help, I hope someone will help her.”
He nodded and we parted ways.
I often think about this. Who was this man? Maybe, he was a widower. Maybe, he was divorced and this was his day out with his child. Maybe his wife needed some time alone and asked him to take the child out for the afternoon.
I forgot to ask the little cherub’s name. So I have given her the name Parineeta. It is part of my name with ‘Pari’, Hindi for angel, added in front. To this day, the memory of her shy smile in that smelly public toilet soothes my soul.