by Holly Joseph
“You realise they’ve been gone 25 minutes aye?”
I checked the clock. Time had lapsed faster than it was supposed to but I was not concerned like Sally seemed to be.
Still, I shimmied my jandals onto my feet.
A throaty song – two native tui – resonated from the Whekī branches as my feet crunched along the gravel drive. I liked my fern trees, though I did not know them like the locals. Just as I liked the warbling and all those other funny nuances distinguishing new life from old.
The drive ended and I was in the street. It was humid and peaceful, noisy cicadas and lapping waves and the nonchalant whining of mosquitoes. The only traffic, occasional drivers curious about the beach at the end of the cul-de-sac. A grass reserve with lawnmower stripes and a scattering of mismatched wooden houses.
The reserve had no children on it which was quite normal when mine were not there. It was a shame in some ways, what a waste it seemed. I took my family to paradise but the only other people here were ageing city folk who needed a break. Still, at least it was safe.
My children should have been on that grass. That was the furthest they could go, for fifteen minutes and no more. Complacency can be contagious and I must say I did envy them.
They were probably at the beach, which was strictly forbidden. They need an adult if they are to play near the water – a cherished misdemeanour.
I passed a woman, about fifty, her right arm outstretched as a young Japanese Spitz yanked her along. It was attached to a chain that looked like it had not long been out of its packaging. She endeavoured to appear in control in just the way I emulated a relaxed mother out to fetch her children. We smiled at each other and I wondered if I should ask whether she had seen them, but quickly she was gone.
There were no mud pies on the beach or fortresses made of sticks and rocks and certainly no humans in sight.
There is that moment, most will know it, when the shadows of a nightmare interrupt the consciousness and, in a flash, you believe it could be true. It happened once before. I only had one child then, a two-year-old, who disappeared into a crush of thick winter coats at a Christmas market on a day trip somewhere up North. It was chilly, years before we moved. I panicked and screamed but of course he turned up fine.
I would not panic this time because I was wise to all that now. My watch said 29 minutes.
The children were not where they liked to play on the tyre swing hanging from the weathered English Oak. A grand tree, we took many family shots there in our first year to share with old friends. They envied the turquoise backdrop and the jutting rocks that did justice to my thinly-veiled boast: “Mother Nature’s playground”.
They were not digging their toes into the sludge of the whiffy brown creek and of course they were not in the ocean because they knew better than that.
The street was motionless as if nobody were in it, although I knew there were quiet folk shut away inside the houses. Their doors were closed and my children would not be behind them, I was certain.
The rhythm of my heartbeat picked up tempo but I ignored it and turned to walk back to the house where I knew I would find them hiding.
“Buggers, playing tricks on us.” I flashed a jaded smirk, taking the wooden steps two-by-two. Sally did not notice the wobble in my throat so I said goodbye because she was leaving. She laughed and said if she had four kids she would probably lose half of them too, as she wrestled both of hers into the car.
I broke into a sprint as soon as she reversed on the drive. Up the stairs and all over the house. They were not in their bedrooms, not hiding, the bathroom and living room and kitchen were empty, they were nowhere. The house was empty and the street was empty and the children were gone.
Back home they were never alone out of my sight, not even in the garden. Hard as I tried to acculturate to the new way, it never felt right. But the better-life is what we came for so I chose to embrace it and now I would live to regret it because my children were gone.
There was that moment and it hit me despite all my resistance.
The world rotated as I flung the damn jandals and scraped the back walls of my sneakers up my heels. My husband stood on the deck but I didn’t see his face.
“Where are you going?”
“THEY’RE GONE.” There was nothing else I could say.
I left him with the baby on his hip, not waiting long enough to hear his response.
The breeze had picked up and I must have looked a state with my hair blowing into rats’ tails and my mouth contorting as I shrieked their names. 32 minutes. Spasms of embarrassment flickered when I imagined what on earth the neighbours must be thinking as they peeked through their closed windows and how much they might mock me after the perfectly ordinary conclusion.
Nausea pinched my throat when I scanned the beach from end to end. WHERE ARE THEY? Everywhere was silent and still and terrifyingly calm. I stood there looking for I don’t know how long even though it was plain they were not there.
On the right-hand side of the beach stood rocks far too slick and sharp for climbing, foaming waves battering them over plunging waters. On the left lay flat rocks that at low tide would lead you right around the bays.
I was sure they would not have gone right, they would never survive it. But I was sure they would never do this to me at all and I was wrong.
My feet took me left. I slithered over wet rocks mostly on hands and knees, crawling and stumbling towards the first bay. I have never been a climber. A beach of pebbles, wailing primal when I saw it, empty as my heart.
My babies were gone because I made the wrong choice.
I stopped, knees sunk in rock puddles, soaking filthy the bright material of the handcrafted harem pants that never did suit me. Three boats were bobbing nearby on the gentle lull. A Sunday afternoon on the yacht, catch a fish and drink home brew. How could their lives just continue like that?
I thought back to the house and imagined how it was. Perhaps all five were home laughing and having a merry time. “Off she went screaming around rocks and never once thought to check the airing cupboard”. Except I did check the airing cupboard and they were not there.
What if they were taken by a car or by one of the strange people behind closed doors or what if they were in one of those boats or what if they have drowned. What if they went right and not left. What if one slipped and the other dived in to save him, they are good kids. What if they were both swept away.
Will they wash up or will they never be found?
It was not really happening, it was a fantasy of horrors. My thoughts were my only penance, my children would not suffer my own stupidity.
Three empty bays. 58 minutes. They were to play on the grass next door for only quarter of an hour and they are good kids. They are good kids. They would never do this, not for an hour, not so far, not somewhere strange.
We had never been out here together. Little caves tucked in rock formations and warm pools with odd creatures and not a soul in sight except for specks on the boats and the crazed mother who was too numb even to cry.
This. This was what we left the terraces to find. A free-range childhood in Mother Nature’s playground, and here it is, but I never took them further than that stupid tree. Next weekend. We’ll come out this way and I’ll hold their hands and take them on an adventure. Would it really be an adventure if I joined in?
I imagined the future and that was when I knew they were not coming home. I sat somewhere and felt empty. Sometimes sensible thoughts would appear in my mind. I should probably dial 111 but I did not have my phone and he would have surely done it already. I wondered if the police were there yet. There was no rescue helicopter. Sometimes the thoughts would fade into nothingness, a sensation of everything shutting down. There was nowhere further to travel, the tide had cut off the passage around to the fourth bay but going home meant they were dead.
For some parents that moment never ends, it becomes the rest of their lives, if they survive it. I sometimes wondered how long it must takes a bereaved parent to realise their moment of terror would never end. I now began to know this was it. That I was one of them.
I sat on this beach and listened, empty. The tui birds were singing again and the ocean that might have taken my children was slapping against the rocks, harmless and innocent. Seagulls cawed in the distance and the wind whipped around piercing squeals of belly-laughter and the unmistakeable noise of boys. Two soaking wet children emerged from a hidden crevice with dirty blonde hair plastered to their faces and seaweed draped around their necks. They were carrying large branches in their hands like towering staffs, and with the skill of a goat they navigated jagged rock.
Two boys, my boys, feral and free.