31 January 2014

A child in danger

One afternoon when I was about six I had wandered alone to the end of our street, further than I was actually allowed and just out of sight of my home. It was not the first time I had strayed too far, but this time a car drew up beside me and a man leaned across from his seat, wound down the passenger door window, smiled at me and said, 'Hello.'

It was said as if I should know him, and I was confused, because I couldn't remember who he was, although he looked friendly.

He reached into the glove compartment and pulled out a big bag of sweets - lovely looking chocolates in bright coloured foil.

'Come in for some chocolates and a nice little drive,' he said, and it sounded like an adult's instruction, not a request.

'Come in for some choccies and I'll take you home. You can give the rest of the bag to your mum.'

I was close to getting in, because I was used to doing what adults told me, and I did step towards the car as he opened the door. But something suggested to me that this wasn't right. I don't remember ever having been told not to take sweets from strangers, or talk to them, but I probably had been. I stepped forward, looked at his toothy smile, then suddenly just said, 'No thanks. I've got to go somewhere.'

And I turned and ran back towards home as fast as I could manage.

I heard the car door slamming shut, very loud, then the noise of the engine coming up behind me. He drove alongside me at the slow pace that was still as fast as I could run. He looked at me as I looked at him, still running, then he slammed the accelerator down and sped away and out of my life.

I suppose it is possible that my young life might have only had an hour or so left to run, had my brain taken a different decision. It surely would not have been a pleasant afternoon whatever happened.

Instead, I was home in a few moments and soon became caught up in some game with my brother.

I didn't tell anyone. I don't know why not. I never have, until now.

Years later, when aged twelve, I had gone to the municipal swimming baths quite late, all alone, just in time for the last session before they closed. The pool was quiet, with only a dozen or so swimmers, and I noticed one of the attendants taking a close interest in my every move. I decided he must be thinking I was a good swimmer, which I wasn't at all, but I was vain and already obsessed with what other people thought of me. So I kept swimming past his chair as fast as I could, which was not very fast, and when he smiled at me I smiled back.

As the session ended and the pool emptied he followed me back to my cubicle, looking over the top of the chest-level door just as I swung it closed.

'You're a good swimmer,' he said, 'but you could be a lot better. Do you want to stay behind for some free lessons? I've coached some boys up to winning medals.'

I was flattered. I said yes. He told me not to get dressed but just to dry myself down and sit and wait.

'Wait until everyone else has gone,' he commanded, 'because I don't want anyone else trying to get my help for free.'

So I waited, and the other cubicles emptied, until there was just one customer left - a woman on the other side of the pool who I could see over the top of her cubicle door. She was brushing her hair as half of the lights went out and the pool looked dark and suddenly rather threatening.

And then I heard a whispered voice that said, 'I've got one. I've got him waiting in there for us. I bet he's got a lovely wee arse.'

It sounded like the attendant, and I was old enough to panic at those words - jumping up from the bench and throwing my clothes on, struggling to tie my shoe laces, when suddenly his head was bending over the door and he was shouting, angrily, 'I told you not to dress!'

'I've got to go,' I wailed, 'I forgot what time it was. My Dad will be waiting outside,' which was a lie.

He glared at me. A frightening evil glare, and then he pulled open the door a little, looked quickly to one side, then banged it closed again really hard.

As he walked away I squeezed out and ran for the exit, and noticed he had another male colleague standing beside him. They seemed to be arguing as I escaped, though I couldn't make out their words.

The woman was just adjusting her hair at a mirror on the poolside wall by then. I think the attendant had noticed her just before he had slammed the cubicle door. And so I made it out into the darkening evening, and home alone on the bus.

I didn't tell anyone. I don't know why not. I never have, until now.

And that worries me now.


Syncopated Eyeball said...

Oh, my God, Andrew! That's so scary!
I think, and I might be wrong, that you didn't tell anyone because somewhere inside you thought that YOU would be in trouble with whoever you told rather than those arseholes. Or maybe you didn't want to talk about something that belonged to the adult world. Or maybe you just wanted to forget about it. Clearly you didn't. I think it's a really good thing that you've finally let it out.
I'm so so glad that your child's mind saved you. Hugs for the child in you.

Andrew MacLaren-Scott said...

I think you are right Ashley, but I worry that I could have saved other people from the swimming attendants, at least. My Dad was a police sergeant at the time too, so something could have been done, but I think I just presumed I would be perceived as the one causing trouble, and it was a subject I just would not have wanted to discuss with my parents. It is troubling though. It gives me some insight into why things go unreported.

Syncopated Eyeball said...

Don't you worry about not reporting it. That's a lot to ask of a child; or anyone else, for that matter.

Claude said...

Children are so exposed and unprotected in this world. And today's parents, who think that a cell phone will help, are very naive.

CherryPie said...

Perhaps the reason you didn't talk about it is because you instinctively knew it was wrong and it was adults that were suggesting the situation.

It would be difficult for a child to explain the wrong doing to another adult for fear that it was the child that was at fault...

susan said...

We can't very well blame ourselves now for being naive as children. I remember having been told not to take rides with strangers, but thought my parents didn't trust them to be good drivers. In days long gone by it was next to impossible for adults to talk to children about sex and the dangers presented by predators. I'm not surprised you kept those stories to yourself, but glad you've told them now.

Claude said...

I'm so, so, so relieved that you were able to avoid being physically hurt. But the mere suggestion that something bad could have happened was too much for a child to comprehend on his own and to speak about with adults. Afraid of being blamed somehow for having brought this upon himself. You probably carried an emotional scar all those years. Hope it heals well now that it is in the open.

I'm sharing your story with my son, father of my grandson. An honest conversation on the subject would help the child to learn how to protect himself in a similar situation, and to report it immediately.

Thank you from the bottom of my heart.

Andrew MacLaren-Scott said...

Interesting comments which made me think some more. I do think that as a youngster in the 2nd incident I felt ashamed, guilty or at least inhibited about suggesting to an adult what I feared the danger was, and ashamed to admit to even being aware of the dangers I was becoming aware of. It was just a subject I could not open, and that troubles me.