Cold crumpet yarn

6th December 1996 at 00:00
Robert was late home from school. It was dark and cold. Where was he? Victoria Neumark remembers her rising panic as she faced her son's first independence day.

It was when Robert was two hours late that I really began to panic. As Trish and Sandra called me and I called Moira and Wendy and Jackie and the school (twice), Robert's ab-sence assumed enormous and shadowy proportions.

Nobody knew anything. But all of us were mothers. We felt something. The school secretary went round the school, looking. Nothing. I looked out. It was very dark. Who was out there? What was out there? Nobody knew anything. I looked at the clock. He was nearly two hours late.

I was hungry. We'd been to the park with the dog and it was very cold. I toasted some crumpets. As Adam and Jeremy ate theirs, I mentioned that Robert seemed to have disappeared. "I don't really care," said Jeremy comfortably and went on eating his crumpet. I went to the phone again. "I'll just eat the crumpet," I thought, "And then I'll . . ." Then I'll panic. I could take the smaller children with me and go to school, which would mean there was no one at home to greet Robert should he turn up, or I could ask someone to do that for me and wait and wait and keep on waiting, or I could ring the police. I put the crumpet in my mouth as I considered ringing the police. As I considered ringing the police, which meant admitting all kinds of possibilities lurking uncomfortably at the edge of my consciousness, the crumpet turned hostile. I spat it out. I looked at the phone. It did not ring.

It rang. Moira offered to go and look for Robert in her car. I rang the school and told them she was coming. Then I said, in a voice that shook with the effort of being casual, "I'm thinking of ringing the police. What do you think?" It was clear that this suggestion shook the woman at the other end. "If you feel you ought to, perhaps you should," she replied. Sandra rang to see if Robert had turned up yet. No, he hadn't. Oh dear. I asked her the same question. Her voice shook, too. "Perhaps you should." It was now two hours and 20 minutes after Robert had finished school. I worked it out like this: it takes 20 to 30 minutes to get home. It takes ( how long, 30 seconds?) to knock a child down, to strangle him, to . . .

"Scotland Yard," said the firm and cheerful male voice. "How can I help you?" "It's my son," I said and burst into tears. "He's not come home from school. "

The policeman was brisk and kind. "Take it easy," he said. "They always turn up. Nine times out of ten they turn up. When was he supposed to be back? Can you describe him?" I tried to describe my little boy. I couldn't do it. I wanted to say all the things I know about him: his cheeky smile, his slightly sticky-out ears, his wiry build which is at last putting on flesh because, joy of joys, he likes the dinner at his new school and eats it, his floppy haircut which he had done on holiday in a real barber's ( it seemed so important to conjure up the essence of Robert although I also knew that was not what the policeman was asking for) but all I could say was, "He's 11 years old."

I said that three times. And what I meant was, "That's too young to die".

Just as I had said it the third time, there was a knock on the door. It was Robert.

"Don't hang up just yet," said the policeman. "Make sure he's all right and tell me."

He was and I did.

"Oh Robert," I said, "where have you been? I've been so worried."

"Oh Mum," he said, "don't you remember? We had an extra technology lesson. We got the letter at the beginning of term. I left it on the floor for you. "

Oh Robert. Oh dear. Later, after about 10 minutes of hysterical crying, I began to think. I thought that I had been foolish. I thought that the school should have been able to tell me about the extra lesson. I thought that Robert should have reminded me that his phone card had run out. I thought that I shouldn't have panicked because 11-year-old boys are just starting to feel their independence. I thought that I should always pin letters on the board. I thought that the umbilical cord is never cut. I thought that people are extremely kind.

And I felt. What did I feel? Something that is there all the time. Something that waits, lapping round the tea and crumpets, like the dark, cold nights which envelop children coming home from school, something that rises and floods, flooding through anyone, anyone female, at the sensing of threat to offspring.

Ignore it at your peril. And then it recedes. You can't reheat crumpets in the microwave. They taste vile. "I knew he'd turn up," said Jeremy, drinking some milk. It turns out Robert had "just popped in" to W H Smith on the way home. Silly me, eh?

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