Imagine, just for a moment, your child fails to show up after school. You wait and watch and hope against hope but he or she simply doesn’t arrive. And, as you wait, what would go through your mind: worry, helplessness, fear, doubt, anger, or dismay?
Or all of the above?
Monday seemed like any other day. We were starting to wind down after a busy day at the cafe. But when my daughter didn’t show, the ordinariness of the afternoon evaporated and assumed an uneasy edge. Something was wrong. But I still had customers waiting for coffees and cheesecake.
It was starting to drizzle and the stream of schoolkids ambling past outside in twos and threes had petered out and the footpath was clear once again. Cars and FWDs had eased out of the car park, ferrying away their precious cargoes without any dramas, like they do at the end of every school day.
I glanced again at the clock up on the wall; that over-sized faux-French provincial thing, with its second-hand moving inexorably round the dial as if mocking my surging angst. It was only a ten minute walk. She should be here by now. Every passing moment felt like an eternity.
An image of an urgent search getting underway loomed large in my mind. I wondered about the responsiveness and competence of the local police. A call to triple zero would surely get things moving.
I imagined a hastily convened search party, and a line of orange-clad SES volunteers, sticks in hand, beating their way through the bush. Or perhaps, I chided myself; there was a perfectly logical explanation for her no-show.
Is this is a scenario, on any given day, that many parents have to endure? Notwithstanding its privileged joys, the relentless demands of parenting are many and often unsung – perhaps even deserving of gold in these Olympic days.
Our daughter is almost ten – old enough to do many things by herself but still too young for so much more. On Mondays after school she walks here to the cafe. She relishes her limited autonomy. It’s about a kilometre all up. She knows she’s not to dawdle but what child doesn’t when school’s out? What child doesn’t become blasé, even resentful about parental exhortations? What child won’t set out to satisfy his or her curiosity?
She has a trusting nature, and, as far as I can tell, she has no real reason to distrust anyone. Her faith in the goodness of human nature isn’t something I share. But then again she’s nine years-old and I’m middle-aged. She’s our only child and precious beyond belief. I’ve often thought that if ever anything happened to her… But I’ve never been able to fully reconcile that thought. Suffice to say I simply can’t imagine life without her.
She’s had much less parental supervision since we moved from inner Melbourne to rural Tasmania and she seems to have relished this scaling back of our helicoptering parenting. Door to door chauffeuring isn’t de rigueur here and kids are generally left to their own devices. It’s not unusual to see young kids walking unescorted by adults to and from school. And I haven’t heard of anything untoward happening to anyone.
When I was a child in rural Ireland, I simply tagged along with my older siblings and neighbours’ kids on the walk to and from school. I guess it would now be called a walking school bus. There was a certain safety in numbers. But, being an only child, our daughter has no such luxury.
I considered forgetting about the customers, locking the till and grabbing my keys and legging up to the school. But she could’ve been on her way down through the park that abuts the tennis court and the library; and anyway, if I went and she turned up while I was gone, what then? So I decided to stay put and wait and hope.
I called my wife anyway, hoping against hope. But I drew a blank, as I knew I would, and I only succeeded in worrying her. So I stacked some chairs, emptied the milk jugs and started cleaning the coffee machine. The phone rang but it was yet another tiresome cold caller from a distant call centre. So I cut him short mid-sentence.
I was sure my daughter’s ventolin was in her schoolbag. Her asthma has been problematic recently. I back-flushed the coffee machine and turned off the power, silently willing the couple who’d just finished their lattes to pay and feck off. As I headed for the door to flick over the closed sign, she bounded up, her schoolbag bouncing on her back. She was grinning and she seemed well pleased with herself.
Turns out she’d decided to stop off at the newsagent’s to buy an exercise book and a pencil-sharpener – and for good measure she’d had a browse at some magazines.
I hugged her tightly. Words of admonition would keep. All was well in our world again.
Philip Lynch is a freelance writer living in Cygnet