I sat on the picnic blanket covering the wet sand, a slight twinge of worry in my stomach. My little boy, 5 years old, had just shot past me excitedly, swinging his bucket as he raced along the beach towards the stream that ran down from the hills behind us to the sea in the distance.
“Where’s he going?” I muttered aloud.
“Just off to get water from the stream,” answered my 9 year old daughter, already up to her knees in a hole she was digging into the sand.
I peered along the sand, through the crowd of happy families throwing balls, playing cricket, walking dogs and building sandcastles in this first fully sunny day all week. We were sat along the front edge of the multitude, whilst behind me and to either side as far as the eye could see stretched a mass of windbreaks, beach tents, towels, ice-cream vans and coffee carts.
I couldn’t see him, and the worry was beginning to grow. Then Sackgirl shot off in the same direction.
“Where are you going?” I shouted.
“To get water, as well.” She stopped and turned back to me.
“Stay away from the sea and look for your brother,” I said distractedly, not really happy with that solution either, turning to poke Mr G lying besides me.
“I’m not happy, he’s been gone 5 minutes. I’ll go look for him, you watch the dogs.” Our puppy was frantically digging a tunnel into Sackgirl’s castle while her mum lay sunbathing contentedly.
I walked steadily along the front line of the tents parallel to the distant sea, scanning the crowd for a small boy in orange shorts, while in my head I was muttering and repeating, “He was told not to go to the sea. He won’t have gone to the sea.”
As I walked along the crowd and the stream that cut through the centre of the beach got closer, a good 4 minutes from our position, I realised how very far it really was. Walking to our chosen sitting area earlier, making our way directly through the centre of the mass from the beach entry point had somehow given the illusion that we were not far at all from the shallow, winding runnels of water that were making their way through the sand.
I saw Sackgirl making her way toward me, bucket of water swinging in one hand. She spotted me and turned to angle her way around towels and family plots.
“Did you see him?” I asked as I carried on scanning around me.
“No, he wasn’t there.” She sounded worried now as well.
“Go along the front here to daddy, tell him to look too. You stay with the dogs and don’t move.” I ordered, and carried on walking into the stream. At this point, halfway between green hills and blue water, the stream that had gushed down rocks onto the sand was now just a trickle. Not dangerous, but also barely deep enough to fill a cup, let alone a bucket.
Undecided, I looked up and down. I had been clear he wasn’t to go to the sea, and I didn’t really think he would on his own, it being scary for a small boy on his own. But I had to check the biggest danger first. I turned and started walking down the beach towards the sea – by now my pace was speeding up, but I carried on at a fast walk so that I could continue to peer at every small child I could see. The throng cleared out as I headed away from the dry yellow sand. The tide has gone out a long way, and it felt like a good 5 minutes before I reached the sea.
At the water’s edge I hurriedly stared at every single body playing in the water, as far as I could see. A couple were stood beside me with their large yellow labradors, and I talked at them, whilst continuing to peer into the water, taking glances at them to show it was them I addressed, but concentrating on looking about.
“Have you seen a small boy? He’s in orange shorts and carrying a see-through bucket. I told him not to come to the sea, but I can’t find him.” By now I could hear my breathing hitching as my heart rate was speeding up, even while my brain was telling me to stay calm.
They hadn’t, but they confirmed they would look as they walked along the beach. I spotted the lifeguard truck some way along the sand to the right – farther away than our own spot behind me.
Undecided again, I looked all about. Which way to go? The sea was full of bodies in both directions – I could walk miles each way, and it might be the wrong way. I looked back at the crowd – from this distance it was hard to make out any features or clothes of the people playing in the mass. Bloody eyesight.
Think! He’s 5. He went for water. He knew the stream was deeper near the entrance. He’s not prone to running off. Which way to go?
I started walking up the stream, faster and faster, until I was jogging. Thoughts were whirling around in my head.
He’ll be in the stream. What if he’s not? He’s lost in the crowd, that’s all. How will we find him, there must be 3000 people within sight. What if he went right instead of left along the beach? What if we can’t find him. No! That won’t happen to us. It happens to people in the papers, not us. But what if we can’t find him. What if someone’s taken him? No! That won’t happen.
I had to stop – I was running full out up the beach, and I’m not the fittest person. I couldn’t breathe. So fat, so unfit, and now it was stopping me finding my boy. Tears were building up in my throat. Each searching glance around me was becoming more frantic, making it harder to focus on any individual child as I tried to look at all of them at once.
Walking again. Moving up the stream – the water on my feet was freezing. The sun on my shoulders was burning. The crowd about me began to thicken again as I got closer to the dryer sand and families, still playing, still throwing balls and no one knew that in my head I was started to panic.
It must have been twenty minutes at least, since he ran off to get water. Twenty minutes. Or more. So much can happen in that time.
Mr G was walking up the stream in front of me and slightly diagonally, looking about him. I could see he was also starting to panic.
I ran to him, not touching, just speaking as I ran up, still scanning. My head was turning left and right like a pendulum. Hundreds of children swimming past my vision.
“I’ve been to the sea, can’t see him, can’t find him. Where’s Sackgirl?”
“Me either, I’ll go this way. She’s with the dogs.”
He went left. I went upstream.
Here, a child digging into the sand, there one pulling the other through the dribble of water on a body board. Small girl, falling over, ice-cream in hand. Queue of grown ups at a coffee cart. People everywhere, but none of them a small boy in orange shorts.
Glance at the coffee cart. I’ve always told the kids when lost to find a shop. I stop and stare at the queue around the truck, and into the booth. Can’t see a child, can’t see a concerned adult looking around for parents.
Move on. Up the stream towards the beach entrance and the gushing water over the waterfall down the green banks. Check out the deeper water – still only calf high but faster before it dissipates into the sand. Check out the walkway, thick with people entering and leaving the beach. Up off the beach and into the little shops selling balls and towels and spades. No sign of him checking out the toys. Back to the entry.
I pushed through the queue at the ice cream stall and asked the teenager working his summer job “Small boy, orange shorts, all alone, can’t find him, any sign.” It came out in a garble, my voice thick with panic and threatening tears. No time to cry. Got to find him. It must be 30 minutes by now. I’m starting to shake. I’m starting to cry, the parents all standing in a line for their ice cream and watching. Not moving. But I can’t. Crying won’t help. No time to look useless. I need to find him.
“No.” The boy at the cart says. “But the lifeguard watch tower is just back on the beach. Ask them.” He pointed to the right and I ran off, barged through the crush and over a huge sand dune, ignoring the busy path as I ran across someones picnic, weaved through the tents and up the steps of a wooden hut, painted blue, with a large flag flying over it.
A man with binoculars and walkie talkie turned to me.
“Small boy, 5, orange shorts, can’t find him.” I gasped, still frantically staring at every person on the beach. I grasped the wooden handrail. My brain is now in full time panic, whirling. “I’ve lost him. I’ve lost him. I’ve lost him.”
The lifeguard smiles at me. Smiles!
“Botboy.” He says.
I turn and look at him. “Yes”.
He talks into the radio. “We have the mother here. We have the mother. Over.” He looks at me. “He’s with my partner, over by the coffee cart. We have him.”
Now the tears come. Even as I hear a voice talk back on the radio. “I have the father. He is with his father by the coffee cart.”
I ran. I may have thrown a thanks over my shoulder, I don’t know. I wasn’t thinking anymore. Crushing relief. But until I saw them, I needed to be sure. So I ran, got to the coffee cart, saw Botboy holding hands with Mr G, grabbed him. Hugged him. Held his hand tightly, very tightly, and walked him back to our little patch of beach, back to our daughter.