It was hot that day, Joe, and you were so restless. I was trying to keep you happy as your father was working on his latest book and needed us out of the flat. The flat had never seemed smaller than during those last few months. You were so excited when Ellie rang and said that she and your very best friend Suki were going to Hampstead Heath Fair and did we fancy joining them?
When I look back on that day I wonder what would have happened had it been raining or had we been busy. In the event we accepted her invitation gladly.
When we got to the fair you and Suki ran ahead, two beautiful three-year-olds, Suki so very blonde and you so dark. I never took my eyes off you for a second, Joe, as you ran ahead. And then you saw it, the carousel. The music could be heard for miles and it seemed to draw you in. “Mama! Mama! Horsey,” you cried.
“Yes darling,” I said, “but you have to wait for the music to stop and then you can have a go.” Round and round it goes while you and Suki jump up and down, waiting for your turn. At last it stops.
I have to lift you up on to the carousel, you are still so small. You choose your horse, a bright red garish-coloured one with a big grin on its face, and you climb up on it. You wave to me. Suki is behind you. You are so happy, Joe. Round the carousel goes, and you wave again. “This is such a wonderful idea,” I say to Ellie. “We were going mad in the flat. It’s so lovely to see the children enjoying themselves like this.”
The music stops, the carousel is slowing down. Suki climbs off her horse, but you will not budge. “Go round again, Mama,” you say. I see no reason to say no. I pay the man for another go and you are waving at me, waiting for the music to start.
At that moment my phone rings. It’s your father. “How is it? Is Joe enjoying himself?” I tell him how much you are loving the carousel and we chat a bit. He offers to make dinner for when we get back that night, by way of an apology for being so distant lately. I accept happily. “That would be lovely,” I say. The music is slowing down, but your father is telling me something. I can’t remember what now, but we are talking and then I glance up. The carousel has stopped going round and I look for you. I am sure you were on that bright red horse. I finish the call hurriedly. “Joe!” I call. “Joe!” I search the carousel, but a new crowd of children are pushing their way on. Maybe you are sitting on another horse? I tell the man I can’t find you and he just looks at me, not really caring. He has a business to run and he just shrugs. He has to get the carousel going again. I am a nuisance.
I am on the carousel checking each horse, but you are not there. You must have got off and run away. You are only three years old, Joe, too young to be at the fair without a parent watching you. I search frantically. I call Ellie on her mobile and she hurries to my side. I ask Suki if she has seen you. She shakes her head from side to side. We run everywhere. We go back to the carousel. You are nowhere to be found, Joe.
How can this be happening? How can you just disappear? My heart is pounding fit to burst. I am frantic. It feels as though my eyes and ears are full of blood. I run here and there. I find a St John’s ambulance tent and go in. I tell them what has happened and they tell me not to worry, that children disappear all the time and they are usually found within the hour. I feel vaguely comforted by this, yet still I run, round and round, searching everywhere and anywhere I think you may be.
You are not back within the hour, Joe. It is now seven o’clock and night is falling. The police are here, asking whether I have a photo of you. Of course I do. I empty my bag and give them my precious photo. You are smiling that same smile you had as you went round on the carousel. You look so handsome, Joe. Your hair is blowing in the breeze. It’s a photo I took just a few weeks ago in Grandma’s garden, my beloved boy. I feel my heart is about to break. What will I do? Where can you be?
The kindly policewoman suggests that I go home. “We have many officers searching for Joe. Go home, get some rest,” she says. “Who knows, he may even have found his way back home by now.” I know in my heart that will not be the case. At three years old you would have no idea how to find your way back, but I let her believe that she may be right.
Your father is distraught when I return. “How could you let this happen?” he questions me. “How could this be?” I say nothing. There is nothing to say. I sit down, put my head in my hands and sob, silently, all the while praying that this nightmare will end soon.
Joe, there is so much to tell you. Your father and I searched the Heath for years, many years after the police finally gave up. They were very kind, they kept in touch always. There was a sighting here and a sighting there, but they were always false alarms. Of course they told us that they never give up, but we know they have. After all it’s fifteen years now, Joe.
Your father and I separated. I couldn’t handle his distress and blame and how guilty he made me feel. He couldn’t bear to look at me. I blamed him. Maybe if he hadn’t phoned at that particular moment I would never have taken my eyes off you just as the carousel was stopping.
Joe, I look for you in the eyes of strangers. Would I even recognise you now? I torture myself night and day. What happened that day? Who are you with? Are you even alive? Are those terrible people who took you that day kind to you, at least? Do they love you like I love you? Did they just need a boy like you so badly they didn’t care that they ripped the heart out of the people whose son you were?
I will look for you until the end of my days. You are everywhere and nowhere for me, Joe. You are the wind that howls in the winter, the sun that shines in the summer. You are everything that matters, and more. You will live forever in my broken heart.
As the years wear on and hope fades even more, I wonder if I have the strength to carry on but I will never give up on you, Joe.
I have been back to Hampstead Heath Fair every year since you disappeared. I stand by the carousel, watching it go round. So many children in the intervening years riding that same ride. The garish red horse is still grinning at me – if only he could talk, maybe he could tell me what happened that dreadful day.