I know now, for a fact, that losing your child abroad is the worst feeling in the world.
Most parents I’ve met will admit to having accidentally become separated from their offspring for a minute or two at some point in their lives. One friend lost sight of hers and the next thing she knew he was waist deep in canal water. I briefly lost J in Ikea once, but the clever boy found one of the few floor staff working there that busy Saturday afternoon. Goodness, I even remember what it feels like to mislay your dad. That sunny summer afternoon in 1966 is forever etched into my memory.
But I am the woman who lost her son in Spain for two and a half hours.
We were having a lovely holiday. I had not only found flights to Valencia for £20, but I had tracked down a deal on a luxury hotel for €45 per night so I had booked us in for a few days’ R and R by the sea during the Easter holidays. (Incidentally, six years on, I see they still have the same offer if anyone wants the hotel’s name!).There was plenty in Valencia to keep me and my nine year old happy. We were a short walk from the fabulous futuristic architecture of the Ciudad de las Artes y de las Ciencias. The Oceanogràfic, its oceanarium, is the largest in Europe and was a fantastic day out. We both loved the dolphin show. There’s an interactive science museum where I remember an immense exhibit of hundreds of chicks hatching. And we spent an afternoon on the beach which was a short bus ride away, though I do recall it being pretty windy when we were there.
We were both looking forward to hiring bikes in the Turia gardens. The gardens follow the original course of the Turia river which was drained in the 1960s after devastating flooding one year. It’s the city’s green and glorious heart and contains a children’s playground, wooded areas, sports fields and miles and miles of cycle ways. It is immense.To cut a long story short, J and I became briefly separated as we cycled along – he went down one side of a small coppice and I went down the other. When the paths rejoined and I waited a bit and I still couldn’t see him, I thought he must have gone back to the last place we’d seen each other. And that’s when the nightmare began.
After cycling backwards and forwards along the route for a few minutes, I exited the park and stopped a man in the street.
¿Dónde está el policía, por favor?
That day I worked at the very outer reaches of my knowledge of the Spanish language. I found words that I never knew I had learned, and many I know I hadn’t.
He called the police on my behalf, then showed me where the police station was on the map. I belted over there, and gave my details. No one spoke English and no missing children reported so far. I went back to the park, and cycled up and down. My first primal instinct was to call my mother back at home, but I knew I couldn’t. It would have been unbearable for her. Instead I called the cycle hire company who sent out a man on a bicycle to join the search. Another man spotted me looking and led me half a mile to a sports field, and pointed to a long grassed area in the far corner. I strained my eyes, fearing the worst. We worked out eventually that he thought I was looking for my dog. By now we were an hour in, and I won’t begin to describe how I felt. Maddie McCann had disappeared the year before. I hadn’t even adopted J yet. He was blonde and blue eyed, and he didn’t speak a word of Spanish. Ah! But he had the hotel’s card stuffed in his pocket. I called the hotel. No sign. This was serious. One and a half hours. Back to the police station, crying. I was scared. Back to the park.
My phone rang. It was the police. They had found him and I was to come to the police station. I’m on my way. Elation, followed instantly by sheer blind terror. They hadn’t told me he was well, they hadn’t told me he was alive. The officer had sounded very serious. Very worst part, cycling to the police station.
But there he was, small and pale and standing quietly by the Spanish police car as they lifted his bike out of the boot. Hugs and tears. He had carried on cycling on and on in a straight line…. for five miles ….. to the furthest extremities of the park. There, when emotion got the better of him, he was spotted sobbing by a Spanish family who called the police.
Lesson learned. Never ever let child out of sight EVER again.