Maybe I needed this jolt on a Saturday in July that marked the start of the summer school holidays. Four old friends connected by a past employer meeting up. It only happens once or twice a year now that we have families. This time, in the open access gardens of a National Trust property.
Some of us brought our children. Rugs, flasks, picnic food, laughter, chatter. There wasn’t an iPad in sight and no pestering for one either. My son oscillating between nest-building with the toddlers in our party and playing football with the older boys. At nine he fell between the two camps. Intermittently he’d wander over to me for a hug or to plant a kiss on my cheek. He’s a gentle and caring boy. That morning when my husband had taken him on a bike ride and took a tumble from his steed, our son was at his side with tears streaming down his face as he helped his dad to his feet. My husband was touched by his concern and proud that we’d reared such a sensitive soul. I remembered all this hours later when I was asked to give a description of our missing boy. To the man with the walkie talkie. But sensitive and caring wouldn’t find him and may have even been his downfall. I croaked “Red shorts with white stars and a navy striped top”.
Reel back twenty minutes. It was almost 5 pm and the cafe was about to shut. The park was emptying out. We’d be leaving shortly ourselves and I knew my boy would ask for a drink once the football was put away. I took our water bottle in one hand and a toddler in the other and made for the converted stable cafe. I didn’t alert my son. I’d be back in a few minutes and I could see he was happily dribbling a ball with his pals. Others had the same idea so I stood in line as bottles were filled ahead of me. We walked back across the courtyard, through the gate and into the clearing where our rugs were. Where our boys were. Only mine wasn’t there anymore. My pal said the four words that started the terror ‘Isn’t he with you?’ She asked her sons if they knew where he’d gone. One suggested the toilet, the other thought he’d left to get water. My heart was pounding in my chest as I walked back to the cafe and searched the stalls. No son. He wasn’t in the Ladies and my male friend checked the Men’s toilet. He wasn’t there either.
Mild hysteria was creeping in. I couldn’t sit back on the rug and wait for him to rock up. Racing through my head a directive about the first hour being crucial. That is if he was still physically able and not bound up by a pervert. Oh the scenarios that raced through my head. A paedophile was on the rampage and, like a bee to honey, headed to this family park. He’d seen my gorgeous boy play with the toddlers and could see he was a polite and pleasing boy, an easy target. He’d pretended he’d lost his little boy and asked my son to help him search. Oh why hadn’t I had more of the stranger danger talks with him.
Meanwhile one of the adults in our party ran to the lake. He might have slipped in. This summer idyll was fast becoming a menacing and sinister spot. I ran up the steps of the mansion – my boy loves flights of stairs but he wasn’t on these or hiding behind the stone columns by the entrance. In the distance I could hear the other children calling out his name.
I’d given his description to the NT staff and later to the man driving the visitor buggy. As I walked away to carry on my search I heard the man say over his radio ‘I have a mother here whose son is missing and she’s looked everywhere’. Had I? Overhearing that made the situation sound so desperate. My phone was in my hand and I knew I should call my husband. But what to say? The lovely special son you spoke about this morning, well I’ve lost him. My mouth wasn’t this dry since I’d sat my driving test many many years ago. I couldn’t bring myself to make that call and anyhow I honestly don’t think I would have been able to get the words out. How long had it been? That’s what the buggy man asked. An eternity. I felt utterly helpless as I stood surveying the beautiful expansive parkland thinking ‘Where can he be’. Just then my pal shouted ‘We have him’.
He’d probably been missing no more than 20 minutes. Though from his perspective he wasn’t missing at all. He’d simply gone to the toilet and on his way back stopped by the table tennis where he stood waiting to have a turn. He reappeared when he saw the commotion unfold in the distance and wondered if we might be looking for him. Grrrrr.
Tragedy averted, the sense of relief immense. Talk of ‘what ifs’. It was only then that we adults shared our fears as we collapsed on the rug. There would be stiff words with my boy later.
The holidays have only begun and there’ll be other outings. These are some of the measures I’ve taken since:
- I reinforced with my son how much he means to our family and how one of my jobs is to keep him safe but he’s got to help me with that too.
- His older sister could recite my mobile number since she was four. Previous attempts to teach him were futile but he’s older now. I taught him the first five digits that very evening. The remainder he’s learnt since. If he gets lost he knows to approach a female with children and ask her to call me. It’s not foolproof. He knows that too.
- He’s promised to tell me when he needs the toilet and I can decide where he should go and who with.
- Now when I know there will be crowds or wide open spaces I dress him in distinctive bright colours so at a glance I can get a reassuring sighting from afar.
- We’ve had the stranger danger talk again. We’ve practised scenarios and ways to say No and Go away.
- I need to be able to say No too. Like when he pushes me for freedoms I feel he’s still too little to have. Or when my inner knowing is saying No but I go along with someone else’s plans regardless.
Our family refer to that afternoon as “The jolt in the park”, and thinking about it sends me straight back to the to the moments just before he was found when I looked as far as my eye could see but I could not see him.