Many years ago I went with my son (whom I’ll call Peter to spare his blushes), and my mum and auntie, to visit my brother in Prague. Peter was 5 years old and beginning to develop the passion for mediaeval fantasy that would stay with him throughout his adolescence. We were making a family holiday of the trip, and had spent the first night in France at the pretty little town of St-Omer. Other than the quintessentially French, but counter-intuitive, idea that the best kind of meal to offer as a children’s special was one in which the child cooked his own raw meat on a red-hot stone (called, reasonably enough, bœuf pierrade) things had been fairly uneventful.
So we left France and headed into Germany. My original plan had been to drive direct to Prague since my brother had told me that it took him only about 12 hours. He was clearly a very much more fiendish driver than I had ever suspected, and I soon realised that for my more sedate driving style an over-night stop in Germany would be essential. We came across a small town very close to the motorway, and went in search of accommodation. In France, whilst by no means a fluent speaker of the lingo, I can with fair confidence negotiate the necessary with any hotel, big or small. My knowledge of German started, and abruptly stopped, with “Achtung!” and “Nein!” from the steady diet of WW2 films all British children were obliged to consume in the 60s. Obviously there was also “Fuhrer” and “mein Kommandant”, but even I knew these would be of limited use in the circumstances. My auntie had been stationed in Germany for a couple of years after the war, but although she was slightly apprehensive about throwing off 40 years of linguistic rust, she accepted the role of group communicator. We parked up and noted, in the casual way that one does when other things are on one’s mind, that the town was playing host to a Hell’s Angels convention and beer bellies, beards and Harley Davidsons were in abundance. We walked to the local train station, a leisurely 5 minutes, which seemed to be the best place to start trying to find information. It will be important later to note that this was a Sunday afternoon.
As we went into the station, Peter noticed that Germany had double-decker trains. We duly went and gave them a closer look; he was fascinated. After this little bit of train-spotting, we went into the stationers. Peter and I went off to look at the fantasy comics, whilst mum and auntie interrogated the check-out girl about likely hotels. Peter demanded a German comic book, laying aside temporarily his preference for the middle ages in favour of Spiderman. I was unmoved. Peter was mightily displeased. I was displeased by his displeasure. As the kind of stand-off in a public place that all parents dread began to develop a head of steam, my auntie called over from the check-out. Saved by the bell you might think, as indeed did I. I was, and you are, horribly wrong.
With a curt instruction to come with me as we had better things to do than argue the toss over a comic he couldn’t read, I went over to join my negotiating team. Apparently there was a suitable hotel close by. I swear by all that is sacred that if 30 seconds elapsed between instruction to Peter and receipt of this encouraging news, it would be a generous estimate.
“Come on then, Peter, we’ve got somewhere to stay!”, I said with what was supposed to be infectious enthusiasm. But Peter was no longer there to be infected. I walked smartly back to the rack of comics expecting to find a sulking Peter and maybe even a stamping foot. Neither was in evidence. Shouting his name had no effect. I can still recall that slow and ghastly transition from intense irritation to very much more intense panic. I ran out of the shop and onto the platforms where we’d seen the double-decker trains that had captured Peter’s imagination. Just as I approached, the train was leaving the platform. I stopped in my tracks numb with horror. I was certain that Peter must have sought solace from the disappointment of not having a German-speaking Spiderman by rushing off to explore the train that had so entranced him. And now it had left the station and I didn’t even know where it was going to. Nor could I even ask anyone to help me. I rushed up the stairs of the footbridge just in case I was wrong and Peter had restricted his exploration to things that didn’t move. Two German men were coming down the steps. I stopped them and the only other word of German that I knew came panic-stricken from my mouth. “Kind! Kind!” The rest of my communication was lost in wild pointing at the departing train, and my super-human efforts to stop myself bursting into uncontrollable sobs.
I thought things could hardly have got worse. But they did. And dramatically. Ignoring my gesticulations at the train, the two men immediately rushed past me and ran at full tilt into the gents loos. They were shouting at the tops of their voices. I caught up with them to find them hammering with their fists on the cubicle doors, and to God knows what consternation of the occupants, crouching down and peering under the doors. They were talking to me all the while in animated voices, and although I understood not a word, I knew exactly what they were saying. Appalling images of Peter’s violation were crowding out all attempts at rational thought.
In abject dejection I went back to my mum and auntie. They had of course been looking for Peter too, but had very sensibly restricted their search to within sight of the stationery shop. Next to the shop was a police office, but it being Sunday it was shut. I thought it was unbelievable that the town had no police on a Sunday, although this is clearly what I was being told. I realised later that this was merely the transport police office but at the time, with logic not my strongest suit, I had assumed the place was so law-abiding that all police could have whole days off without a problem. By now Peter had been gone for 10 minutes. Any parent will know how long a time that is in such circumstances. I was losing hope.
I told mum and auntie to stay at the shop in case Peter returned. I thought that was a frighteningly slim possibility, but there was no point in us losing each other as well. I walked back to the car. Maybe, just maybe, Peter had lost sight of us in the shop, and had in panic tried to find his way to the car. Even I was a bit unsure where to find it, but I managed to re-trace my steps, passing by the crowds of menacing bikers who had by now, however irrationally, become my prime suspects for paedophilia and child abduction. At the car, no-one was to be seen. Suddenly I was no longer alive in any normal sense. I was my own zombified self. On auto-pilot I trudged back to the station. Those poor bikers must have marvelled at the looks of hateful contempt with which my facial features, detached from any volition on my part, were surveying them.
The three of us stood outside the stationery shop in silent horror. No-one wanted to find themselves saying fatuous and pathetic words of empty comfort. But no-one wanted to articulate the truth about their fears, either. That I would never see my son again. That he might even now be lying dead and bloodied in a foreign town.
20 minutes now since I’d last seen him. It might have been since the beginning of time. And then the self-blame. All this because I was too mean to buy my son a comic. All this because I couldn’t even keep my eyes open when it mattered. All this because. Because I was a worthless father.
And then my auntie’s voice. “Peter!” This happened 15 years ago but I can still feel the tidal wave of relief that rushed over me then, and my eyes still water at the memory. Peter was walking with a face of thunder across the pavement outside the station. He looked up as his name was called, and then came the uncontrollable, unstoppable tears. His, and mine.
You’ll have noticed that in this little family outing, Peter’s mother does not appear. Our relationship was already crumbling, and when my brother had invited us all to Prague, she’d declined. I called her the next day when we’d arrived at my brother’s, and told her the whole story. I shared my appalling horror, and I shared my indescribable relief. She tore me off a strip for my wanton and careless exposure of her picknie to such danger, and wanted to know what I could be trusted with.
“This wasn’t much fun for me either, you know!”
“You nearly lose my child, and you want me to feel sorry for you?”
And in that moment I knew. I had found my son, but I had lost my lover.