‘So what exactly are you afraid of?’ prompted a longsuffering friend, once my nineteen year old son and his rucksack had departed for South America and I had confessed how the fact of his six foot two frame and burgeoning independence did not stop a small primal part of me feeling as if my beloved, tiny firstborn had been snatched out of my arms. ‘That he will die,’ I replied, shocking myself at the awfulness of this blurting truth.
The friend rolled her eyes, a wise woman counselling a stupid one. Her son had done his travelling the previous year – Thailand, Australia, New Zealand; yes, it was worrying, she admitted patiently, but he had come back - with a beard and an ear-piercing – and was now safely ensconced in a university studying Shakespeare.
Life moved on. I had a new novel to start, and my other child to look after. From time to time emails arrived, offering tantalisingly brief descriptions of unpronounceable places and – most comforting of all – photographs, showing our offspring in glorious Technicolor - smiling, solid – alive! We missed him of course, but the worries eased.
Then a bus crashed in Ecuador. Four gap-students killed. There was a flurry of concern from family and close friends. Had he been on such a bus? Was he in Ecuador? Had he known any of the poor girls who had been killed? No, no and no. And a small, despicable part of me thought, phew, there we go, that’s this year’s gap-student tragedy done with. Reading of another fatality a couple of days later, this time involving an Australian crocodile, I fired off a joky email full of advice for an imminent trek in the Brazilian jungle: Wear shoes not flip-flops! Don’t talk to any animals with sharp teeth! Bumping into the friend to whom I had confessed my early terrors, I boasted of the intrepid exploits of my travelling son, how sensible he was, how well-equipped for whatever life hurled his way.
A few weeks later an email arrived from Bolivia, describing the extraordinary beauty of the salt plains and the lung-crunching altitude of La Paz. He and several friends had still managed a fantastic game of football against another hostel, he reported, adding – with the first glimmer of wistfulness - that lack of regular sport was almost as tough as the absence of my home-cooking.
I had happily relayed this information to my mother, who was in London for the weekend, and idly reached for the newspaper, when I found myself confronting a full-page article under the headline: British cyclist among victims as car veers off Road of Death in Bolivia.
Bolivia. The coincidence of place drew my attention. A Toyota land cruiser had blown a tyre on a winding, steep-sided road out of La Paz and careered into a string of ‘thrill-seeker’ cyclists, twelve of them English. One, a boy called Tom from West London, had been killed – pushed by the car over the road’s precipitous outer edge – and several others had been injured. The Toyota had then gone over the edge itself, killing eight of its twelve occupants. The article was accompanied by a grainy, heat-hazed photograph of two cyclists staring at the battered land cruiser, the vertical drop of the roadside just inches from their back heels.
Wow. I read the story out to my mother. I had barely finished when the phone rang. Even then, on hearing my son’s voice for the first time in three months, I thought only to gabble inane questions about the weather and his itinerary. That he sounded oddly flat I put down to the bad line, the trickiness of talking round the time-difference. And then he said, I’m phoning because we’ve been in this accident, Mum, on a place they call the Road of Death… I was calm. And he sounded calm too, in spite of the smallness of his voice as he spelt out the chilling details: two of his friends had been on either side of the boy swept to his death. One now had his arm in plaster from being thrown off his bike. They were all badly shaken but fine…
And then the line went dead, irretrievably so. I put the phone down and turned to my mother only to find that I was crying too violently to speak. I had fought so hard not to worry. And yet the thing I had most dreaded had nearly happened. A few inches either way - the puncture blowing at a different moment – the car taking a different angle - and the voice on the crackling line would have belonged to some hapless Bolivian with sufficient command of the English language to deliver bad news.
I let my mother hold me while I cried, aware suddenly of the child I still was to her, my life as treasured as my son’s was by me. I wept because I had forgotten this and because I felt helpless and because another family, just a few miles away, were in the thick of a horror of which I had only had the briefest glimpse.
Two months later my son came safely home, more beautiful than I remembered, more grown up, more gentle and appreciative. I had long since put my crying behind me, pressed all the fears back into abeyance, as I had to – as everyone must - in order to stay sane. Those we love are not safe. We are not safe. A freak accident on a winding Bolivian road, a knife on a south London street – every life is more precious for the thread by which it hangs.