We were in the bread aisle. I turned my head, to peer more closely at the yellow tag at the end of the loaf of bread, trying to uncurl it, to decipher the best before date, barely visible in tiny black print. This simple act took three seconds, four at most. I looked up and he was gone. No bright red coat, no blond haired, blue eyed boy clutching his as yet unpaid for pack of jumbo pencils in soft, still toddler-like hands.
I didn’t panic. I told myself he wouldn’t be far away. I walked to the end of the aisle, turned left. No, not in jams and baking. I retraced my steps and turned right. No, not in biscuits. Stay calm. Where is he? I shouted his name a couple of times, expecting to see him appear. Nothing. Nameless faces pushing trolleys ambled by. But no sign of Pip. Looking ahead, I wondered if he had disappeared to the bottom of the freezer aisle, to the his favourite place behind the tills; where he likes to fiddle with the silver dispensing flaps on a vending machine that holds plastic balls filled with toys. Hastily, I made my way there. The only child at the vending machine was a small dark haired boy with his mother.
Heart pumping, adrenalin jumping, running now. Back to the bread aisle. Perhaps he’d wandered back there to find me. Maybe it would be better to stay put, at the last place he'd seen me. I return to an empty space flanked by silent loaves. Shouting now. Over and over, repeating Pip’s name again and again. Panic surging. Eyes stinging. Suddenly unable to stay still. Then running to the in store bakery; the place where he loves to stand in front of the glass counter and look at the pink sprinkled ring doughnuts and the gingerbread men. Lone shoppers walking trance like, as if oblivious to me calling the name of a young boy, that might possibly be lost. Or missing.
Don’t think it. Don’t think it. It’ll be alright. It’s going to be fine. Store workers, restocking shelves in the aisle beyond, blurred at the periphery of my vision. A thought. Help. Get help. They can help. Tell them; ‘I can’t find my son, I’ve lost him. Help me.’ Moving again. Still shouting his name on approach.
A woman wearing glasses, touching my arm. "Are you looking for a little boy in a red coat?’" Yes. Yes. I am. I’m desperate, have you seen him? "He’s with one of the store workers, they’re taking him to customer services, to make an announcement on the tannoy".
Running. To get to him as soon as possible.
Midway through the store I find them, Pip, following a tall man, smiling, still holding the pack of jumbo pencils.
“Hello Mummy, this is Michael. I was going with him so he could call you.”
I look at Michael. His badge confirms his name. His uniform, that he is ‘real’. I thank him, we walk away, in search of our abandoned shopping basket. I explain to Pip that Mummy has been so so worried. That he mustn’t wander off.
“If you get lost, then you find a man in a brown suit and then ask them to call your Mummy.” he says. Problem. Solution. Pip’s world is simple.
Yes and no, Pip. Yes, if you are in the Sainsbury’s supermarket, where you recognise what the uniform looks like, and that the person you’re talking to is someone who works in the store. No, if you’re somewhere else. You can’t just walk off with anyone, anywhere in a brown suit. Does he understand the subtle difference? I’m not sure.
I’m a surge of emotions. I feel thankful, I feel tearful. I feel unable to reconnect back to normality. Discombobulated. We find our abandoned shopping, checkout and go home, I clip the kerb on the way.
Later at home, we make gingerbread men. The sole reason for our trip to the supermarket was to buy the ingredients. To be precise, they’re actually Gingerdead men. Skeleton shaped men made from a special cutter, a practice run for Halloween. Pip loves making them, examining all their little bones. But the irony of making skeleton shaped biscuits is not lost on me, especially today.
As I knead the dough and Pip helps roll it, I reflect that we’ve never had the ‘we don’t go with strangers discussion’. I think; he’s three. He’s too young. I don’t think he even understands what the word ‘stranger’ means. I tell myself, he’s always with me. I never let him out of my sight. I’m always watching him. And then the little voice in my head says; "Except for those four seconds you took to look at the best before date on a loaf of bread today. That’s how quickly these things can happen. Just.like.that."
Recent media events have made me even more jittery than normal. How do you balance allowing your child to enjoy the innocence of childhood with ensuring they are able to do the ‘sensible’ thing in a situation where they find themselves alone or lost? Pip knows his full name, and address, and after today, I’ve decided to write my mobile number on the inside of his shoes. If he get’s lost, somewhere where there isn’t a tannoy, someone can call me (assuming of course, that he remembers to tell them that my number is inside his shoe.)
Today’s generation of children have their childhood compressed to such a few short years, I want to preserve Pip’s idealistic view of the world for as long as possible. I don’t want to frighten him or worry him unnecessarily. Not at age three. Yet I find myself now wondering if this is irresponsible parenting in a different sense. If I’m being naive. If I should say something. Is there a halfway measure? How do you tackle these things sensitively with a child so young? Is there an appropriate age to talk to children about the dangers of strangers?