A chest-tightening moment of terror

Image: Shutterstock
Image: Shutterstock 

OPINION: Once, as a small child, I wandered away while shopping with my mother. After searching in alarm, she eventually hurried to the police station. Fortunately, that's where somebody had taken me and we were reunited. No harm done.

Primarily, I know about this because she has told me about it. I am also sure I remember snatches of the incident. I can picture a late afternoon day and being bored. I asked if I could go and look at toys and received a distracted response. For some reason, I took this as permission to leave the store and search for the Toyworld at the back of the old Deka on Broadway Ave, Palmerston North. My recollection is it had a big model T-rex skeleton at the time and I think this is what I was looking for.

Human memory is sketchy at the best of times, of course. I can't really be sure if those are true memories. They might well be post-hoc constructions I've come up with after hearing the story. What I am sure I will never forget, however, is being in my mother's shoes in the same situation.

The incident happened on Saturday in The Plaza shopping centre. It was a chest-tightening moment of terror.

We have three boisterous sons. They are aged 5, 3 and 18 months. Needless to say, they can be quite the handful when taken together.

The combination of personalities adds to the challenge. The 5-year-old is a daydreamer with a tendency to halt to ponder a random crack in the ground. The 3-year-old is gregarious and likes nothing more than to strike up conversation with strangers about his toilet training progress. The 1-year-old is entirely lacking in fear and will struggle mightily to break free of any restraint so he can run off and do something dangerous.

Divide and conquer is a good strategy where available. You don't want to be outnumbered three to one in a place like the supermarket if it can be helped. Sometimes it can't be helped, and at other times, you even find yourself volunteering for the punishment.

Because she stays home to care for them, the greater burden of the anarchy falls on my wife. And while she is saintly, it often feels like the boys just take that as a provocation. So, to give her an hour's respite, I insisted on taking them with me while she bought groceries.

I had a few things to get at Kmart and then I figured I'd let them have at it in The Plaza's playground. I expected the first leg would be hard work but that, once we got through it, we'd be laughing.


The best laid plans.

Opposite the playground is a variety store and, since I needed change, I took the boys in so I could buy some random knick-knack to break a 20. This last-minute detour had not gone down well and the place was crowded. Once we emerged, the middle child kicked off his shoes and ran for the play area. I turned around to check on his older brother.

He had vanished.

We returned to the shop. I checked each aisle. The hole in my stomach got bigger each time. Moving back into the concourse, I was in a daze. The other boys, not aware of the problem, ran back to the playground equipment. I tried to think it through.

I couldn't leave because he might come back. But I needed somebody to come for him. I tried calling my wife. No answer. I tried again. No answer. I felt that brief, involuntary and entirely unreasonable anger that flashes whenever somebody doesn't answer the phone when you really need them to.

I texted her and started looking around for a security guard.

Then, from about five shops over, I heard a child cry out. That must be him. I grabbed his brothers and hurried down there – ignoring the middle child's protests about the need to put his shoes on first.

It turned out it was some other kid – appropriately minded, I should add. Now on the verge of panic, I repaired back to the playground. By this stage, I was calling out his name loudly.

The store's proprietor saw what had happened and we called security together. They sent a guard over and he put out an alert for a brown-haired Caucasian male wearing a blue T-shirt. I realise that, in my anxiety, I had forgotten to add the important detail that his top had rockets on it.

Then the inevitable happened. A kindly young couple appeared with a bleary-eyed boy in a blue spaceship top. They'd picked him up by the escalators. He hadn't been abducted, he'd just walked off and got in over his head.

Kids can move fast. Surprisingly so. And even when they disappear only for an instant, I now know it is a moment of pure terror.

So – and I know this is a bit late – but sorry, Mum.

Liam Hehir writes a weekly column for the Manawatū Standard