I didn’t realise my knackered Fiat Punto can actually do eighty miles an hour.
Under other circumstances I might marvel at this milometer milestone but at the time I’m sweating with fear, screaming at other cars to get out of my fucking way as I try to break the West Yorkshire land speed record in a desperate race to get home.
The term ‘the phone call that every parent dreads’ is a much bandied-about cliché, a tabloid headline, a Take-A-Break favourite to give bored housewives a delicious tingle of tea-break-terror before settling back into the comfort blanket of the humdrum and everyday.
Actually, Take-A-Break should rebrand as Tea-Break-Terror. Or maybe I’ll start my own shabby publication. I don’t know.
Me and the Punto amber gamble at a junction and we win.
The call came at work, the parental dread phone call. This time it was one parent phoning the other. My wife never calls at work. Ever. We don’t need to call each other. She can sort anything out. She’s tough, independent, resourceful. Likewise, I can usually muddle through most things without pestering her at work.
So the insistent buzz of the my concealed phone coupled with her name lit up in blue light made me frown. I slipped the phone in my pocket, slipped out of the office, pressed ‘answer’.
There was a brief incomprehensible babble that put me on high alert. She isn’t a babbler. She doesn’t babble. I told her to repeat what she said and she said,
“He’s not arrived at the childminders, he’s not at school, he’s been missing for over an hour.”
I said, “I’m on my way.”
I can’t half shift when I want to.
Boots thumping across the carpet through rows of desks, quietly shouting to my boss that I’m leaving, my son has gone missing, his face an ‘O’ of shock, a muttered, ‘oh fuck…’.
Boots smacking concrete, through rows of machines, gawping shift workers, machine chatter.
Boots on wet tarmac through rows of wet cars to the Punto and I felt a pang of regret as I thought, “I’m sorry, car, but I’m about to thrash the fuck out of you.”
Door slam ignition cough gear grind and gone.
He’d set off from school at three thirty. He was carrying a large model astronaut he’d built for a school project. He’d called it Steve Best, Astronaut, a great astronaut name, I think you’ll agree. His teachers had tried to persuade him to leave it in the classroom but he loved it and wanted to take it home. He’d set off from school with Steve Best and they’d both disappeared.
Changing lanes, undertaking. Driving like the kind of driver I hate. I see the stupid speed I’m going and slow down, telling myself to stop being a cunt, then I tell myself to hurry up, time is important, anything might be happening, anything, anything, anything might be happening that second, that very second.
Seventy, eighty. Red lights, zero. Green lights, ten twenty thirty forty.
Screaming at people in my metal box, a deranged man in other people’s rear view mirrors, a right not pretty sight.
That’s when a fertile imagination comes and bites you back, suddenly off the leash with a brand new theme to play with: What’s Happening To My Missing Son?
My stomach does a slow flip. I’m suddenly absolutely certain that I have the capacity to kill. Not an idle threat or a fantasy but a very cold realisation. Yes, I know that’s another Tea-Break-Terror favourite but I couldn’t give a fuck.
My eyes flick from the road to cars passing in the other direction, looking for a boy in the back, looking for the glimpse of a large model astronaut, looking at the faces of drivers, thinking, ‘is it you that I’m going to kill?’
I judder around the roundabout, hit the brakes behind a pristine bronze Rover. He’s taking up the whole road, ten miles an hour under the speed limit, thirty miles an hour below the speed I want to go.
“Come on, come on, hurry up, hurry up you fucking cunt, HURRY UP AND MOVE MOVE MOVE!!”
I see his eyes in the rear view mirror, I see him shaking his head.
He doesn’t understand what is in my head, what I’m imagining. He doesn’t see the crumpled model of Steve Best, Astronaut on the road side like my imagination does. He doesn’t see the van with the sliding door.
I get around bronze Rover. He pips his horn. I scream FUCK OFF and race on.
Left right straight on through the chicanes of parked cars and the random meanders of whimsical town planners and now I’m at the school. A few kids leaving football practice, a few dads, no Steve Best, Astronaut, no son of mine.
I grind the car around and I’m on the route he walks to the childminders.
I go slow, checking out gardens, looking in windows. Nothing. I measure in my mind the distance to the childminders house and each meter is a chance of finding him and each passing meter adds to the weight of conviction that he is gone, each stretch of empty road a gaping hole of fear.
I reach the childminder’s road and I feel a rush of loss. I can’t describe it. I’d failed. The parental nightmare was here.
I turned slowly into the road and saw them.
Steve Best, Astronaut, was in the lead. He shuffled a few steps, then my son shuffled a few steps in his oversized parker. My lad has his hands under the astronaut’s armpits, lifts him forward, then follows. He’s been doing this for an hour, covered a quarter of a mile.
I stop the car for a few seconds and just watch, drink in the fact he’s safe and alive and not in a van or under a van and he’s doing a space walk with Steve Best, Yorkshire Astronaut, and I leave the car in the middle of the road with the doors wide open and the engine running, I walk over and give him a hug that leaves him breathless and giggling and with shaking hands I dial the number and say, “Don’t worry, love, I’ve found him.”
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