It is a fairly innocuous start to the day. The overcast sky promises rain and the wind causes a slight chill but I ignore them. Instead I choose to put my trust in the meteorologists’ forecast for sunshine and dress myself and my boys in shorts and light t-shirts. Hours later, my choice is vindicated as the sun comes out in all its brilliance.
The drive is smooth. Metal and tar maintain a healthy respect for each other, both playing their part and working in perfect harmony as cars drive along miles of motorway. The satellite navigation system, determined to guide me via the fastest route, keeps advising an alternative route. After resisting for several junctions and staying my course, I allow myself be seduced by its mellifluous tones and turn off the motorway. When I see the ‘Road Ahead Closed’ sign, I am reminded how I have become so dependent on computers. I sigh and make a U-turn, the 10 miles I thought I would shave off our travel time have actually doubled making the journey even longer. The boys start to fret. Is their day at the theme park over before it has even started? I reassure them that it is ok. I will retrace my steps and get us back on track.
I breathe a sigh of relief as I pull into the car park. This SatNav will not be the death of me. Laden with bags of nourishment, enough to feed three large families for a few days, we walk towards the entrance. A mule would be hard pressed to carry as much as we are lugging around but I will not be caught out by the exploitative over-priced food at such places. I am already regretting packing so much, perhaps I went a bit overboard. But there is no time for self-recrimination, what’s done is done and I get on with it. We meet up with friends. The load is distributed around, though not evenly, I don’t complain. I am just thankful for a bit of help carrying those bags which have become increasingly heavier with each step.
Several roller-coaster rides, lunch, snack and toilet breaks later, we are all spent. It has been fun; it is time to go home. But not before a quick stop at the shop to buy the swords I promised the boys.
Swords chosen, shields, not part of the original deal, have somehow wound their way into the shopping basket. I am about to protest but I am loath to be responsible for wiping off the looks of delight on their small faces. The shields stay.
“I need the toilet, Mummy. I’m bursting.”
“But just five minutes ago, you said you didn’t need the toilet.”
“I didn’t then, I do now.”
This is not the time for my spiel about ‘going to the toilet when I ask you to’. I hand his little brother over to my friend and then make a dash for the toilet. He is seven years old. He feels he is old enough to go to the Men’s toilet. I am not comfortable with that. I have heard and read about terrible things happening to children in toilets. I do not want my child to become one of those statistics. I know I cannot protect him forever but for now, it is the Ladies’ where I can go in with him. Today, there is a queue snaking out the door of the Ladies’. And he is desperate.
There is no queue at the Men’s. He is starting to hop from foot to foot as if he is playing hopscotch. I shelve my apprehension and send him to the Men’s. It is just a Number One, he will be in and out in no time. As he runs in, I go as close to the entrance as I possibly can without actually going in, ignoring the pointed looks of some of the men going in. While waiting, I whip my phone out of my pocket. I haven’t managed to catch up on social media all day. I tap the screen to get the phone out of sleep mode. It does not respond. My battery is dead. Shaking my head, I sigh at the fickleness of these newfangled phones designed to be all things to all men – but without the battery power to sustain all those functions.
I put the phone back in my pocket and begin to wonder why he is taking so long. I cannot go into the Men’s toilet to check up on him. This is why I prefer him going to the Ladies’. My heart skips a beat. I take a deep breath and caution myself not to panic. This is just a minor misunderstanding which will soon be cleared up. I move even closer to the door and call out his name. The loud humming of several hand dryers drowns out my calls. I yell even louder and listen out for a response. There is none. None except strange stares from men exiting the toilet. I stop a man going in with his kids and ask him to please look for my son. I tell him his name. And then I wait.
He comes out soon after to tell me that having checked all stalls, there is no sign of my child. Now, my heart beat really races. Blood rushes to my head and for a moment my vision blurs. I blink several times to clear my vision. Enough with propriety already! I walk in, hardly noticing the startled looks of men doing their business in urinals. When calling out his name a few more times yields no response, I could swear my heart drops to the bottom of my belly.
Exiting the toilet, my mind is churning. I remember that it was just a few days ago I had a chat with him and his brother about keeping safe. They had run off from me at a large supermarket. Yet again. When we got back in the car, I painstakingly explained to them about the many dangers of not staying close to me while out. I told them that not everyone has a good heart and some want to harm children. I told them about the little girl who had disappeared from her parents’ side at a similar supermarket; how they raised the alarm, how the staff looked everywhere in the store, how she was eventually found in the toilets, head shorn by her would-be kidnappers in order to disguise her appearance and take her out unnoticed.
My mind shifts back to the present. Is this now what is happening to me? The thoughts are so confusing, my head hurts. Where could he be? Is there a back door? Could someone have dragged him out through there? What do I do next? Alert the authorities? As the questions and different scenarios tumble around my head, I look around hoping to spy him in the sea of humans milling around. Instead all I see are eyes. Eyes of other parents, looking at me.
In those few seconds, I read the emotions they can barely hide in their eyes. Pity, empathy, censure, relief. As they clutch their own children, holding them close, their tactile gestures giving double assurance that their own offspring are safe, their eyes tell me that they feel my pain. They tell me they can appreciate what I must be going through, that they cannot tell me how sorry they are that this has happened to me. They don’t want to tell me that they are relieved it happened to me and not them, but their eyes cannot hide how they really feel. Finally, I see the censure, the unspoken questions. How could I have been so careless? Why didn’t I take him to the Ladies’? Why let him go into the Men’s on his own?
I want to tell them that I am not that parent. Not me. No. I am not that parent whose child goes missing. I want to tell them how many times I have read these kinds of stories and, like them, I too wondered what the parent was doing when their child went missing. I want to say to them that I too have asked how it was possible for a child to go missing under the watchful eye of its parent? I want to tell them that I always insist my boys go to the Ladies’ for precisely this reason. I want to tell them all of this. But I have bigger fish to fry. I cannot find my son.
I make my way to the Information booth to report him missing. I take out my phone to call my friend and let her know what is going on. The battery is still dead. My throat hurts from unshed tears. I want to scream about the injustice of this situation in which I find myself. I drink in deep breaths to keep myself from falling in a heap on the ground and wailing.
It suddenly occurs to me to check the shop first. He might have come out, slipped past me unnoticed and headed straight for the shop where his newly acquired sword and shield awaited him. I quickly change course and jog to the shop. The sight of him wielding his ‘weapons’ renders me immobile with gratitude. A silent prayer of thanksgiving escapes my lips just before I bear down on him. My relief and gratitude come out as a tirade, berating him for running off without me. Lips trembling, he apologises. Like a pin prick deflates a balloon, the apology dispels my anger. I pull him to me and envelope him in a hug. I tell him it is ok, Mummy was just worried he was missing that’s why she yelled. I remind him not to ever run off again, that it could prove dangerous.
Drained, physically and emotionally, we head for home. The boys doze off in the back and I mull over the day. My thoughts are drawn to how easily this day could have ended differently, how a different sequence of events could have brought about a tragedy of immense proportions. I think back to how I felt in those few minutes when I couldn’t find my son. How utterly helpless and small in the huge machine of life. I think of all the other emotions I experienced simultaneously; guilt, anger, frustration. I think how easily my family could have been devastated and how the trajectory of our lives could have been irretrievably altered. I think of all the families that have been in this situation, how it didn’t necessarily end up the way mind did. As I think, I experience a greater appreciation for the blessings I have been conferred with. Things could so easily have been different. So tragically different.