Looking out: Good Samaritan or interfering cow?

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The Independent Online
It is a stifling summer evening and as I park outside my house, I notice four young children in a scruffy Fiat opposite. I don't make a habit of staring at other people's kids, but I can't help noticing these because of their huge dark eyes and the way they immediately grin at me through the window. Most of all, though, I notice them because the car is unlocked.

Don't be so bourgeois, I berate myself. I'm so hung-up on potential child-snatchers that I'll dash into the dry cleaner's with the hazard lights on, kids strapped in, doors locked and eyes fixed rigidly on the road. But of course the rest of the world is entitled to a more relaxed attitude. So I don't give it another thought.

Until the next night, when they're parked there again outside my window, wriggling and scrambling over the seats. The eldest is a serious, pigtailed girl of about eight, the youngest a thumbsucking three year old - the same age as my daughter. Two boys fit somewhere in between. Big smiles again.

I ask my partner whether he thinks they belong to the Bosnian refugees living opposite, At least, we think they're Bosnian refugees. I've tried to smile at the tall, thin man with the sad moustache, who appeared in the uncurtained front window about

three months ago. But I was met only by empty, displaced eyes.

I've watched him returning from Asda with his carrier bags, with the woman I imagine to be his mother lagging three steps behind - nearly toothless, weighed down with frozen food, swathed in black fabric, a look of resigned disgust on her face. I've

peered out in my breaks from work and tried to slot these people into the spaces in my head. Are they pleased to be here? Are they relieved, despairing, homesick? We naturally despise net curtains, but I might as well be twitching them.

An hour later, they're still there. It's eight o'clock and the sky's emptying of light. The boys are climbing out now and then and running around the car then getting back in. Doors slam, and I immediately think of the little one's fingers.

'Oh for God's sake, they're perfectly all right,' tuts my partner, telling me for the millionth time that, despite publicity which might have us think otherwise, people with murderous intentions very rarely snatch children. And if these do belong tothe Bosnians, an unlocked car is probably not a very big deal after the war zone.

But when they're still there at nine o'clock, I've had enough. I'm torn between taking them a bag of crisps (though of course my own kids are banned from so much as glancing at food in a stranger's hands) and calling the police.

Some new people are now sharing a bottle of wine in the Bosnians' front room. After a while, one of them comes out with some bread. All the children seem content as they eat. Then the adult goes back into the house and children back into the car.

'That's it,' I say.

'Call the police then,' says my partner, though we both have our doubts.

I tell our friendly Home Beat Officer the truth - that I don't think the children are in danger, that I do think they belong to the people across the road, but that it's happened two nights in a row now and I can't ignore it. I also ask him not to let them know who called him. The fact is I feel like an interfering cow, and I'm still hoping this man might smile at me one day.

The constable promises he'll check it and next day he rings to say he had a word with the family - who he tells me are Croatian - who insisted the car was perfectly safe because the handbrake was on.

'It's a tricky one, though,' he says, while admitting that he shares my opinion. 'The children all seemed perfectly happy and they were apparently being watched from the house. We can't really tell them what to do with their own kids, can we?'

They haven't been out there again. Maybe the policeman scared them, or maybe it wasn't that at all. I don't know why they were there, nor why they're not there now.

The man with the sad moustache still won't look at me, but the other day I was bringing my three in from the car and five-year-old Jacob was moaning about not wanting fishfingers and three-year-old Chloe was refusing to get out, and one-year-old Raphael was just beginning a tantrum and I had a headache and I screamed at them all to shut up, and suddenly I looked up and there he was.

He was standing there, in the curtainless window - just staring at me - and I'm not sure what I thought, but it was something along the lines of, Oh Shit.

Julie Myerson's first novel, Sleepwalking, is published by Picador at pounds 9.99 on Friday.

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