I just caught a glance of the rear of a grey saloon through the kitchen window before it sped out of sight. By this point Laura had been on her own for no more than three minutes. Three minutes alone, unsupervised. Three minutes is a long time in the life of a family. Three minutes can change everything, destroy bliss. That’s what I thought after I heard the car pulling off at speed up the lane that passed the side of the house.
The incident started like this – we three, Laura my five year old, her younger brother Finn and I were playing Piggy in the Middle in the front yard. The children had ganged up against me and were gleefully passing the ball to and fro. I was doing my best to feign inability to intercept the ball, tripping clownishly, panting as if out of breath and generally making a great fist of being a jovial but pathetically useless sport. Skips, the brown terrier was less tolerant of ball game etiquette with young kids and occasionally skidded into the foray, snatching the ball and making for his kennel. The kids were ecstatically happy with all of this foolery. I was content for a different reason: that they seemed unaware of how bitter my separation with their mother was getting.
I noticed that whenever Finn stopped he momentarily crossed his legs. His toilet training had fallen by the wayside since the split according to Louise. I hadn’t asked her if Finn had been to the toilet before I took them so I knelt down beside him, “Finn, do you want Daddy to bring you for a pee pee?”
“No! I don’t need to go,” he said and when I asked again he merely oinked and giving me a fierce glance shouted, “Piggy Daddy! Not nice Daddy!”
That struck me as a little out of character for him and I wondered if Louise had said something about the reasons behind the split. I hadn’t seen the kids in five days so I was reluctant to get drawn into a mini-row. I ignored his comments and the game went on. A few minutes later I convinced him that I needed to use the toilet too and if he could come with me we’d get a biscuit from the tin on the way back. So off we went inside, leaving Laura playing contentedly – the gate was closed and I left the front door open so she could call me. The biggest delay inside wasn’t the potty business but the picking of which biscuit. Finn was adamant that he needed two. That’s when I heard the car speeding off. I put the biscuit tin back and picking Finn up I walked outside. My heart sank – the gate was open and Laura was gone. Those without kids probably imagine the parents of all abducted children to be guilty of gross negligence but it was that simple. That quick. Three minutes and she was gone.
It’s not a manly thing to admit but I swear I felt slightly faint – I held onto the door frame with my free hand – Finn held up to my chest with the other. “Laura? Where are you?” No answer. Trying not to let panic slip into my voice I called louder, “Laura!?”
I didn’t step into the garden for twenty seconds or more, I could feel my head spinning and my legs weaken. The noise of the radio in the hallway – could it have drowned out sounds outside? She certainly hadn’t come past us in the toilet – the door had been open when Finn and I were inside. So I stepped forward, closing the door behind me and ran to the gate. “Laura? Laura?” my voice louder. I listened but no reply from Laura. “Laura, if you can hear me, shout?”
Finn was puzzled. “Laura’s hiding Daddy. Daddy?”
I didn’t answer, I couldn’t answer. I glanced up and down the street and then on remembering the grey car dashed to and peered down the side lane. The graveled service lane looped around the back of four houses and past the telecoms box before coming out on the entrance road to the cul de sac. Across the road from us were rows of houses and cars parked intermittently along the pavement. “Daddy, can I have Laura’s biscuit?”
“Sure buddy. You eat it and when we find Laura we’ll get another one.”
As I started to jog down the lane it flashed into my brain that if Laura was gone I might never be allowed to see Finn again. I reached the bend in the lane and my heart sank when there was nothing or nobody to be seen. Then I felt my stomach and my mind twist in unison. It was inevitable that I’d be blamed for Laura’s disappearance but the way the separation was going I might even be suspected of some kind of involvement. Christ. We passed the telecoms box and came out onto the tarred road – no grey car, no Laura.
My eyes scanned every front yard, every garage door, every window – there wasn’t a soul on the street. Could she have headed to the canal? My eyes glanced on to where our cul de sac met the main artery road through the estate and then I saw it. The grey car peeping out from a side junction. It was hard to be sure but the driver seemed to be a youngish man, middle aged. In those split seconds I saw that the passenger seat was empty but the driver was twisting round to someone in the back seat. A hand reached in from the back and pointed in the direction of the main entrance to the estate and the car moved off again.
I took off after them but the car moved quickly and the rear windows were tinted so I could see nothing else. The driver never looked in my direction and as I got closer to the junction I could hear the beat of loud music from the vanishing car. I was devastated as it took off on the main road. Instinctively my hand grasped into my side pocket for the mobile phone – I suddenly remembered it was on the floor of the toilet where Finn and I had bent down to the potty.
Sweating now, I turned and made back towards the house running full pelt. Crumbs from the biscuits fell from Finn’s jumper to the ground as I took him in both arms – he reached out to grab them. We turned back into sight of the house and the open gate. As we approached my heart plunged again – the front yard was empty. The front door still closed. Shite. Who would I call first – Louise or the police? Or should I go for the car to follow the grey saloon and call en route?
“Get more biscuits Daddy. More biscuits!”
“You gotta wait Finn. Daddy needs to think.” Get the phone first. Then car.
“But you promised biscuits once we found Laura! There Daddy! There!”
And there she was, coming out the front door of Number 51, back near the corner, pulling a reluctant Skips by the collar and admonishing him loudly. Behind Laura walked a smiling grey haired woman who I barely recognised – I’d only started renting here two months before. She called over, “Skips has been chasing the McEntee’s cat again – I hope you don’t mind but I gave Laura a wee treat for her being so great!” She winked over.
I waved as nonchalantly as I could and smiled hugging Laura tightly. “You’re sweating Daddy?!” she said. “And Daddy look,” she added holding out the two chocolate bars in her hand, ” I got a bar for Finn too!”
When the two of them were snug in front of the television I went to the fridge and drank long and hard from a bottle of sparkling water. I think that’s when it dawned on me just how much more difficult it would be for a single parent, as opposed to a couple, to keep tabs on two spirited kids. A terrible sadness surged inside me to think that the kids safety would be compromised by the separation. Sadness seethed into anguish as memories turned to the night of Louise’s staff party and I felt light headed again. I sat down, head in my hands.
We’d got a call from Sarah, a trainee radiographer who’d been babysitting for us since the kids came along. I hadn’t been drinking so I offered to drive on home to check on Finn who had started vomiting. Truthfully I was delighted to be getting away, the party was full of cliques in corners staring and smirking. I was half way to the the car two streets away when I realised the keys were in Louise’s coat pocket in the cloak room.
The music was pumping from the speakers in the bar when I came back into the entrance lobby. I turned down the corridor and into to the cloak room and there she was. Louise and the sleaze in the beige shirt she had introduced me to earlier in the evening. I could hear them giggling and panting like teenagers – I stood for a moment, long enough to be sure it was her and then turned and walked out. By that point I’d say I had left Louise by the front door no more than three minutes previously. Three minutes is a long time in the life of a family. Three minutes can change everything, destroy bliss. That’s what I was thinking as I sped off in the car back to our house.
For another short story, this time about a relative grappling with the slow deterioration in health of an elderly loved one, click here.