Tuesday, 28 September 2010

What’s in a name? If it's Nicky, then a propensity for getting lost

A strange set of conflicting emotions seizes a parent who has lost a child. I mean ‘lost’ in the literal sense, of ‘mislaid’.

On the one hand, there is the feeling of dread that the loss may prove permanent, for which the counterpart is of course the painful hope that it will actually turn out to be temporary; on the other hand, there’s the sense of indignation, if the child indeed turns out to have been temporarily mislaid, that he or she has put you through all that suffering. Needlessly.

The worst of it is that no child is ever responsible for getting lost. It is always the fault of the parents and any other family member present. All those other people may distinctly remember saying ‘we’re going this way – here – through this door – and down that street’; the child who got lost – or rather who the others lost – knows perfectly well that they really said ‘just go that way and we’ll follow along shortly.’

The first child specialist of this kind of phenomenon in my experience was my brother Nicky. Have you ever been to Sveti Stefan? It’s one of those wonderful places like St Michael’s Mount or Mont St Michel (incidentally, those really are two different places, opposite each other across the Channel, though few people know the smaller, English version, in Cornwall). Sveti Stefan is an island off the coast of Montenegro linked to the mainland by a causeway. It has the beauty of its equivalents in the Channel, but far better weather.

My brother got separated from us in a shop on the island. The three of us are convinced to this day that we had told him we were about to leave through the main door, but it’s amazing how one can fall for a communal self-delusion of this kind: it appears we actually told him to leave by the back door, which is what he did.

A couple of hours later, by which time we had given up searching and repaired to a café on the mainland from whose terrace we could keep an eye on the causeway, with the weight mercifully off our feet, a disconsolate but clearly disgruntled figure appeared from the gate of the town and started to trudge angrily across. For a moment that is so deeply seared into my memory, I’m amazed that I can’t remember which of my parents set out towards him, but I know that when they met it was like one of those cosmic catastrophes when galaxies collide, from whose violence the observer is only shielded by distance.

Decades later, Danielle and I had our final son. Now given the history with my brother, you might feel we should have known better, but we decided to call him Nicky too. And blow me down if he didn’t take a leaf out of the book of his uncle and namesake.

One of the three best moments took place in southern Alsace, and we really can’t blame him. I was mercifully spared the pain as I was in England, but Danielle and our middle son Michael were wandering through glorious woods towards a well-known site for visitors, the Dwarves Grotto. Nicky was in a hurry and Danielle gave him permission to go ahead, as long as he faithfully followed the arrows helpfully tacked to trees and rocks along the route.

Unfortunately, unbeknown to her, the routes and their markings had all been changed. The arrows he was following no longer led to the Grotto.

There followed a several hour period of complete panic, and I’m still grateful to Danielle for not having phoned me until it was over. Fire brigade and police came out and as night fell, so did their morale as they began to switch from optimism to grave countenances and serious whispered conversations. Suddenly, however, a couple in a car emerged from a track.

‘Who are you looking for?’ they asked.

They were told.

‘We’ve just seen him!’ they said, ‘but when we tried to talk to him he ran away.’

They turned the car and drove back into the woods, where they quickly found him again near the spot where they’d seen him. Carefully sticking to the injunction not to get into a stranger’s car, he refused to get too close until they told him ‘your mother – Danielle – sent us to fetch you.’

All was well as ended well. Nicky got to climb up into the cab of a fire engine and wear a fireman’s helmet. And Danielle never really got the full urge to strangle him: the worry had been too great and he really hadn’t been to blame.

In the second event, the urge to strangle wasn’t directed at him, but at me. I lost him on a ski slope. He’d wanted to go down a red route, but we were with his cousin who was a beginner and didn’t want to chance anything tougher than a blue one. It looked as though the two would meet at the bottom, so I went down with my nephew and let Nicky take his route on his own.

The routes didn’t meet.

Back in the apartment where we were staying, the atmosphere became increasingly frosty as the night fell. The rescue services refused to act on the grounds that it was still too short a time since Nicky had disappeared. Finally I could take Danielle’s looks, with their threat of imminent divorce, any longer and as much to escape them as in the hope of finding Nicky, I left the flat and set out to walk through the village.

And there on the central square I found him. Very dutifully he had simply stood there, in increasing cold, and refusing the help of any passersby on the grounds that his ‘daddy would soon be along to collect him.’ Very sensible of him. And he was right – though it wasn’t that soon.

But the third moment was entirely of his own doing. Chronologically, it was actually the earliest of the three. He was five. It had taken us hours to find Camber Sands, in Sussex, a lovely beach on the English south coast. We finally got there, hot, irritable and longing for some relaxation.

Nicky was gone in about thirty seconds.

We spent the next two hours wandering up and down the beach asking if anyone had seen a little boy in a yellow tee shirt and red shorts. No-one had.

It turned out that this wasn’t in the least surprising. When we finally did track him down, he was stark naked. All he was wearing was an expression of hurt innocence and surprise at our fury. ‘What on earth,’ he seemed to be saying, ‘are we expected to do, when we’re five years old, and on a beach, but to get rid of our clothes and start enjoying ourselves?’

We never did find the yellow tee shirt or the red shorts.


Mark Reynolds said...

First, it's posts like this that make me glad neither of my parents blog.

Second, it wasn't too long ago I recall reading a tale of a close relative of your son's leading two carloads of Englishmen over half of Eastern France. It would seem the finger of blame has been unsurprisingly misdirected.

Danielle said...

Didn't Pirjo find him, on the beach?
And she was there too when he got lost in the Jura...

Awoogamuffin said...

No matter how often I head these stories, I love to hear them again. Good old Nicky