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Isn't He with You? The Four Words You Never Want to Hear

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. The toilet or the café they offered. My heart was pounding in my chest as I walked back to the cafe. No son.

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 football with the older boys. At nine he fell between the two camps. This annual gathering of old work colleagues and their children heralds the start of the summer school holidays. This time, in the open access gardens of a National Trust property.

Intermittently my son would wander over to me for a hug or to plant a kiss on my cheek. He's a gentle and caring boy. Only that morning my husband had remarked with pride on what a kind and sensitive soul we'd reared. I remembered this later when I was asked to give a description of our missing boy. To the man with the walkie-talkie. But sensitive and kind 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 and headed 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. I 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. The toilet or the café they offered. My heart was pounding in my chest as I walked back to the cafe. 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. Racing through my head a directive about the first hour being crucial. That is if he was still physically able and not bound up. 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 recognised an easy target. He'd pretended he'd lost his little boy and asked my son to help him search.

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. I should call my husband. But what to say? The lovely special son you spoke about this morning, well I've lost him. 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. 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 afterwards stopped by the table tennis where he waited 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. 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 how much my son means to our family and how one of my jobs is to keep him safe but he's got to help me with that.
  • I taught him the first five digits of my mobile number that very evening. The remainder he's learnt since. If he's lost, he knows to approach a female with children and ask her to call me. It's not fool-proof. 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 open spaces I dress him in distinctive bright colours so at a glance I 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 moments just before he was found when I looked as far as my eye could see but I could not see him.

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