The furore surrounding the story about 'Lewis' star Laurence Fox leaving his five-year-old son unattended in the family car while he popped into a chemists to buy medicine for his poorly toddler brought to mind an incident that happened a few Sundays ago.
I was in the pub with a few friends to watch the football on Sky. Next to us sat a dad and his son, aged about eight or nine, both wearing Arsenal shirts. I didn't even notice them until what happened next.
Without saying a word, the dad went to the bar then came back with an orange juice and plonked it down in front of his lad. Then the dad walked out of the front door. Again, I thought nothing of it, presumed he'd nipped outside for a smoke. But after a few minutes, we started to notice that the boy was becoming agitated.
In between gulps of his drink, he kept looking at the door, hi eyes darting. Anxious. By now, 15 minutes had gone and my friends and I looked at each other and raised our eyebrows.
"Where was this boy's dad?" we asked, without saying anything.
"That's a long smoke," I said, before leaving my seat and going outside to find the dad and tell him that his son seemed a big on edge.
But there was no dad to be found. When I returned to my seat we decided to engage the boy in conversation.
"Are you OK, son?" I asked, just in the way I would hope a decent stranger would ask of my nine-year-old if I'd gone AWOL.
The boy started to rock on his chair, his eyes darting here and there.
"Yes, yes, fine, fine," he replied.
It was clear he had special needs, possibly autism.
"Where's your dad gone?" asked my friend Sara, who works as a health visitor.
"He's coming back," the boy said. "He'll be back soon," he reiterated, reassuring himself.
"Would you like another drink?" I asked.
"No thank you," the boy replied, politely, as if he'd been told never to accept sweets from strangers.
Another 15 minutes went by, and by now, my friends and I were as on edge as the abandoned lad, speculating about where the dad had gone, discussing our course of action if he didn't return.
Should we tell the bar staff? Should we call the police? For now, he was safe – we were there to make sure nothing happened to him. But what if 'we' weren't 'us'; what if 'we' were sinister strangers with an opportunity at hand?
"Let's give it until half time and if the dad's not back by then, I'll talk to the bar staff," I suggested.
At the half-time whistle, I asked the very nervous young man if he wanted another drink (he refused again) and then went to the bar to call the landlord over.
And then, just as I waited my turn, the door literally flew open, like a scene from a Western saloon. And there stood the boy's dad – panting and ashen-faced, as he scoured the room looking for his son.
I didn't know whether to burst into applause or grab him by the throat, but what I did say was this: "Where the HELL have you been?"
And instead of challenging my challenge, the dad almost burst into tears.
"I'm sorry, I'm so, so sorry. Oh my God, I am so sorry," he said, both to us and to his over-the-moon son.
As I was at the bar, I bought him a pint and then he explained.
His son was nine years old and, yes, he was on the autistic spectrum. His dad had recently become the boy's full-time carer after splitting with his mum and he was getting the hang of keeping his lad entertained and occupied, especially at weekends.
One of his lad's favourite treats was to watch his football team with his dad and so the father had brought his son to the pub – except he'd left his wallet at home.
"It's a two minute drive away," he told us. "I thought I could just nip in the car, nip home and head back. I thought I'd be back in five minutes. I thought Aaron would be OK for that long. I told one of the staff, they said it'd be fine, so I left."
So where the HELL were you for 45 minutes?
"Roadworks. Detours," he answered. There may have been a few expletives to accompany those two words.
So, all's well that ends well, then: father and son reunited, no harm done. But not quite. The incident raises so many questions about leaving children unattended – and it divides opinions to an extreme degree.
Would you have left your vulnerable child in a pub, even if you thought it was going to be for just a few minutes? Or would you have left the freshly-bought drink instead and taken him with you?
In the case of TV actor Laurence Fox, he parked up in a loading bay, dashed inside and was back again within several blinks of an eye.
And if a particularly particular Police Community Support Officer hadn't noticed his son all alone in the car, that would have been that – an everyday (for some) occurrence that passed off without any untoward consequences.
But the PCSO thought the celebrity dad's actions were outrageous, and even called the actor 'disgusting and an appalling human being'.
Surely an over-reaction? Surely a case of 'there but for the grace of God go I'? I mean, who hasn't left their child unattended for a few minutes? I have. I do it all the time. I did it this week.
The wind was howling, the rain was pouring and indoors I had my 12-year-old stepdaughter and six-year-old son. Unfortunately, their nine-year-old brother was at a friend's house and I had to collect him.
What's a house dad to do? Drag the oldest and youngest out of their cosy haven, wrap them in coats, strap on their shoes, then usher them out to cold dankness? Or do what I did: tell the 12-year-old she's in charge, tell the six-year-old to take orders from his sister; tell them both not to answer the door to anyone, no matter what the circumstances, then leg it out into the night air, tell middle son's mum there's no time for small-talk, and leg it back to find the oldest and youngest still sat in the same spot on the carpet as I left them, watching TV?
Similarly, the other week: it was morning, my children's mum had gone to work and I had neglectfully forgotten to buy milk for the morning Weetabix.
What's a house dad to do? Let my children eat dry biscuits or, worse, send them to school without the most important meal of the day inside them? Or do what I did: leg it to the shops, there and back in 10 minutes tops, and give my children breakfast?
Of course, I could have been hit by a car on the way. Of course, in the 10 minutes I was gone, the bogey man could have knocked on the door and snatched my kids away. Of course, the kids could have decided this was the perfect opportunity to go all Lord of the Flies and set fire to the house.
But none of that happened. Is that by luck or judgment? I'd like to think it's a combination of both – with a heavy dollop of trust.
I trust my 12-year-old to look after her brothers; I trust her brothers to take instructions from her. I trust them all not to answer the door to strangers (or even Lee, the postman).
But most of all, I trust that the world is not as evil and dangerous and as populated with kidnappers and paedophiles as we parents can often be made to feel.
In short, I believe there are more people like me and my friends in that pub, who go out of our way to keep children safe, than there are wicked scumbags who would do our children harm. Child snatchers are NOT the norm!
More:Is It Just Me?
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