The Girl and I are staying with The Bear in a small village outside Manchester. It’s the kind of place where after a couple of days, shop owners use your name and ask whether that nasty rash is any better. The weather is sunny and The Girl wants to walk to swimming lessons by herself. She is nine. There are no busy roads to cross. Most of the village inhabitants have known each other a lifetime. (It’s not like that village in The Wicker Man either where a foggy air of WEIRD catches the throat right from the beginning – think of The Archers instead – proper friendly).
And yet I’ve been following The Girl at a safe distance. Both when she goes swimming and when she goes to the shop. Believe me I know it’s ridiculous – I’m blushing as I type this. The first time she bounced off up the road, her swimming bag in hand, I saw her across the road, waited a few minutes then set off as she rounded the corner. Like a computer game all I could see ahead were dangers. The dog curled up at the back of the van she had to pass. The van itself. The two men painting the flat. I watched till she passed them all. Insanely I was more worried about the men and the dog than the fact that she then had a medium busy road to cross. But she looked both ways like a Green Cross Code Ad, then ran up to the swimming baths.
I’m really annoyed with myself about this because during my journalism days I wrote many articles about the dichotomy between the reality of crime and our fear of it and when speaking to NACRO, the crime reduction charity, they said that ‘the majority of violent crime is domestic takes place behind closed doors and is unreported.’ I understand that child murders have not risen over the past twenty five years. And that broadcasters have a vested interest in digging into our anxieties. If it bleeds it leads. (Very good article in Psychology Today about fear based media). But I also wrote much of this before I had the kids. We’ve had those moments where we look round and the child isn’t there. Our faint disquiet rockets to pure panic in a matter of seconds. Then we don’t think of the unlikely hood of anything happen. All those acres of newsprint and details of murder cases which lie dormant roar through the head in a continuous spool.
I know a mother who drives her daughter everywhere and I mean everywhere. The girl is now seventeen, and scared of everything. I understand the impulse but it serves as a lesson. When the Girl is older I will have to let her out into a world of nasty boyfriends, perverts and misleading road signs. And the child who copes best in connecting with the world rather than shying away from it, is of course the confident child.
So the third day she goes swimming I see her across the road, grit my teeth, wait five minutes instead of five seconds, then hot foot it after her. She is just crossing the road having managed to pass the decorators, (Mike and Larry and ‘yes thanks the cut on my arm is a lot better today’) and the dog (‘Harry – has no teeth’ and his breath would knock you out at fifty paces anyway).
The following day I run out of bread. The Girl eagerly offers to go to the petrol station shop, two minutes down the road. I say yes. The Bear tells me to leave her alone and reiterates that this village is statistically much safer than London. I hate the word ‘statistically’ but he’s right. Off she goes. Is back within five minutes – with bread, receipt, change and cheeks flushed with success. The next day she is sent to buy eggs. The Bear tells her to try and get eggs that are as fresh as possible. And unsalted butter.
Ten minutes later I am engrossed in a recipe book and The Bear looks up from emptying the dishwasher. ‘Isn’t she back yet?’ and instantaneously my brain sloshes with panic. ‘I’ll just nip out and see’ I say, voice sounding thin.
I walk quickly down the road and see a black windowed Saab pulling out of the petrol station. It would take a few seconds to bundle a child into the back of a car. Would anyone notice? Would she scream or would she be shocked into silence? I yank a pen out of my bag and scribble the numberplate on my hand – I can’t quite read the last letter. I hurry to the shop and stare through the big windows. She is not in the queue. I can’t see her anywhere. My mind judders to the last photo I have of her and see the school one where I washed her hair the night before so her blonde curls tumble round her rosy smiling face.
The picture that will be splattered over every screen, and newspaper – her bright hopeful face frozen in time like Holly Wells, Jessica Chapman, April Jones, and poor little Daniel Pelka – all trusting wide smiles, in contrast to the repulsive details of their ends.
About four minutes have passed since I left the house.
And then I see her. She has been bending down choosing a bag of crisps and she straightens, a thoughtful look on her face. I watch her for a few minutes while my breathing returns to normal. Then I walk back to the house feeling sad and stupid.
She is back within three minutes and I hug her, still feeling stupid. ‘Some man bumped into me and I broke an egg’ she says cheerfully. ‘So I asked him to get me another box of eggs from off the top shelf. Ow mummy you’re hugging me too hard.’