Yesterday morning, before the rain came, Izzy was hunting in the garden for chocolate eggs. As I watched her giggling with excitement and screaming at every new discovery, I felt strangely uneasy.
I’ve had this sense of anxiety since Wednesday, when the world ended for 300 people on a boat in South Korea. The story of the capsized ferry has combined a terrible sadness for the fate of children I’ve never met with a fear of how I could ever completely protect my own. As I watched the videos of obedient students, many the age of my youngest son, huddled in corners waiting for the instruction to disembark that never came, I shuddered and thought: what if one of these were my child?
This week Izzy and I have been following the progress of the tiny ducklings on the lake below the house, their worried mothers bustling them through the reeds. My other children have been steered to adulthood reasonably smoothly, but you can’t help thinking how fragile and unpredictable life can be.
My eldest son was nearly killed when he was knocked off his motorbike in Barcelona. I sometimes wake up with the image of him being brought out of the operating theatre, caked in his own blood. My daughter Rocca is currently living in one of the most dangerous places imaginable, Uganda. I can’t wait for her to come home, even though she’s now thirty years old. Sam, fearless and headstrong at 16, has already reached the threshold of GCSEs – who knows what scrapes he will get himself into over the next few years?
But Izzy, just five and hunting for Easter eggs, at what point does she begin to leave our protection and face the world on her own? Her first school trip? What if the minibus driver has had a sleepless night? Or their train driver misses a red light or the pilot feels suicidal? I know this smacks of paranoia. But looking at those faces of distraught families in South Korea, I doubt there can be many parents here who won’t relate to their agony and desperation.
And fury. For there’s a point where the responsibility for the protection of our little ones passes from ourselves to other authorities – to school and state. Which is why the anger in Seoul is entirely justifiable.
How can there still be passenger ferries anywhere in the world where a captain can leave the boat in the hands of a 25-year-old novice? How many more incidents will there be like this, or like the trip of the ill-fated Costa Concordia, before the world installs video monitoring and a proper black box on the bridge of every vessel? Why is that today, six weeks after MH370 went missing, thousands of flights will be taking off from Heathrow with pilots who can still disconnect the plane from the outside world with a single switch?
The greatest threat to our children’s safety is human fallibility, and always has been. Thirty years ago I was on a cross-channel ferry from Belgium, when the Flemish captain invited me up to the bridge. After we’d both consumed a lot of strong lager, he handed me the wheel.
“Turn it,” he said.
I gently steered the ship to the right.
“No, like this,” he said, and spun the wheel right round.
“Now listen,” he said.
Down below, we heard screams, then the sound of clashing cutlery and breaking glass. The captain roared with drunken laughter as we completed a tight 360-degree turn, oblivious to the discomfort of his passengers or the danger from the heavy trucks and cars down below.
30 years on, when all the new international safety regulations, technology and equipment can still apparently be undermined by human frailty, can we really claim to have made the world any safer for our children?
Paranoia? Or is this just part of the inevitable process of anxious parenthood?