We push through the entrance. There are thousands of people here. ‘Stay where you can see me, boys,’ I say. ‘If you get lost, we’ll meet here – find a mummy and tell her to bring you here.’ I say it twice, the second time making them look at me because they’re already distracted by the sight of a Ferrari across the courtyard.
The cars are good. Really good. Even I can feel testosterone surging through me as we pass Lamborghinis, Ferraris and McLarens. The boys are in heaven. Then, food time: the lunch we would have had at home tastes exceptional as a picnic and the children, adequately refuelled, run circles around us until Edward is finished, waiting to go across to the adventure playground. I send them and Matthew on and as I join them a few minutes later the eldest two are tearing down the big slide. Ben, at three, wants a go but thinks he is too little, but still he is going to try. He runs across to the slide and I watch the ramp up to the slide because he’s out of sight now and Matthew keeps an eye for him at the top. A few minutes later he still hasn’t appeared so I walk the ten steps or so to the ramp and he’s not there. I call to a dad about to climb inside, ‘is there a little boy stuck in there?’ ‘No, nobody,’ he replies and I think, oh crap.
I shout to Matthew as I walk back, ‘he’s not there, you go look and I’ll wait here in case he comes down the slide.’ I’m not worried, much. I’m pretty sure he’s wandered off to a neighbouring slide and will reappear – triumphant with achievement – in a second or two. I try to assess how long he might have been gone for.
Matthew does a circuit without seeing him. He doesn’t appear off a slide.
I feel a rising sense of panic. I know he’s here but I just can’t see him. I know that. But it doesn’t stop me feeling a heart-stopping sense of fear.
Matthew returns. ‘Go to the gift shop.’ It’s the exit and the place we agreed to meet if we were lost. ‘Run,’ I say. ‘Report him missing.’ I’m sure I add, ‘stay there until we find him’ but if I did, he didn’t hear me.
I’m shouting now. Ben. Ben. Nothing. I turn to a mother standing behind me. ‘I’ve lost my son,’ I garble. ‘Can you look after the strollers. He’s three. If he comes back here, can you hold onto him and stay here with him. I’ll be back in five minutes.’ Her husband offers to help look for him. ‘What’s he wearing?’ he asks. I know what he’s wearing, I picked it out just so I could spot him easily in a crowd, but I can’t answer. I stand there saying, ‘he’s three’ and holding my hand out to indicate how tall he is. ‘What’s he wearing?’ he says again, twice. In my panic, I realise he must think it’s important. ‘Blue stripey t-shirt. I think he’s wearing long dark trousers.’ I feel like I’m talking to the police. I try to think of what someone else would see when they look at him. ‘He’s three. Wispy hair. Eczema all around his mouth and on his chin.’
Then, carrying Edward, I take Harry and William and circle the park. I’m shouting. Ben. Ben. It’s very noisy. There are so many children here. I look in every direction but there’s no sign of him. We make a full circuit and meet the husband helping look for him. He shakes his head and I keep going, almost running now. I see a mother I recognise. ‘I’ve lost my little boy, my three year old, Ben, blue striped t-shirt, wispy hair, eczema all over his mouth.’ I’m gesticulating, the panic showing in my movements. ‘If you see him, hold onto him, I’m over there,’ I say, shouting over my shoulder, not stopping. Another mother, the same message. I’m running now, Harry is sobbing with fright. Ben. Ben.
We’ve been round the park twice. With sinking fear I realise he has probably had time to wander off towards the cars. We are running over there. Another mother I recognise, the same message. There are thousands and thousands of people here. No sign of Ben. I’m really panicking now. I’ve lost my son, I shout over and over. People are stopping their conversations, stepping forward to help. We’re running, shouting very loudly, in any other circumstances I would feel a terrible urge to snigger because I’m sure we must look ridiculous but I can barely think straight.
Matthew reappears and I yell at him. ‘What are you doing here? You should be guarding the exit. What if someone has taken him?’ Now I know that almost zero children are abducted. I also know that 75% of those zero children are taken by people they know. I know that. But right then, standing there, paralysed with fear and helplessness I am terrified that he has been taken.
Fifteen minutes have passed. A child doesn’t go missing in a place like this for fifteen minutes without someone seeing him. There must be twenty or so people actively looking for him, not to mention all the people who’s conversations I have interrupted with my shouting for him.
Wherever he is he’s likely to be sobbing with fright.
I’m back now with the woman with our strollers. Her husband is back. No sign of him. She looks at me with real fear. ‘I’m calling the police,’ I say and turn and start walking to the gift shop. I’ve walked maybe twenty steps when I hear a girl, a teenager, excuse me, excuse me she’s saying. She’s not calling loudly enough to be calling me, but I turn anyway because there’s something about her voice. I turn around and I see the mother and another woman gesticulating at me. I feel my legs want to collapse under me with relief. I’m running towards the woman, she’s waving me over, I’m holding William by the back of his t-shirt making him stay with the speed I am going.’There’s a woman over there with a small boy in tears,’ she points to the far edge of the playground. I look but I can’t see. I’m still running, I turn around but the woman is well behind me. I think she must be wrong, there’s no-one here. But she reaches me and points up into the hollow of a tree and there I see him in the corner, sobbing.
And then he’s in my arms and I’m crying with relief (fear does that to you). I might have yelled then a little bit too (stupid, but fear does that to you too).
The security guards are on the two-way radios about the missing child. We tell them it is okay, we found him. It sounds like the simple end to a simple missing child story, it is the simple end to a simple missing child story, but we are all in a state of shock and not one of us talks on the thirty minutes journey home.