December 1997. Twenty-one-years ago.
Bink was home. All our worries over. We thought.
For the rest of that week, we found ourselves giving press conferences; smiling for photo calls; opening hate mail; bracing ourselves for patronising opinion pieces telling us where we’d gone wrong.
I slipped up – on the way out of a meeting with journalists for which we’d all agreed, with Gordon our liaison officer, that I wouldn’t say a word – when one of them asked whether we would be telling Bink off.
Were they mad?
Does the Good Shepherd rebuke the lost lamb, found in the crevice of a cleft rock? Does He wag and nag as He brings it home, rejoicing, on His happy shoulders?
My brief unguarded negative gave rise to plenty of angry column inches: our indulgence of this renegade who had cost the taxpayer such a fortune, and wouldn’t even be punished by her parents. (She hadn’t, of course, as the Met themselves pointed out in response: the resources are there anyway; and what better use can they be put to, than reuniting a child with her parents?)
Virginia Ironside, agony aunt for the Independent, delighted in many hundreds of words telling the Telegraph’s agony aunt how she had gone wrong. In all my years of suggesting ideas to enquirers in the writing of my own column, it had never once occurred to me to intervene in the lives of people who hadn’t asked me to. I hope it never would.
I sincerely trust and believe that if Virginia (whom I liked very much) had, God forbid, lost her twelve-year-old for an agonising day and a half, and thought her dead, I would not have presumed to tell her why her child had disappeared, or how she the mother should have been better caring for her family. (Indeed, the first principle I laid out in my own book on childrearing is that we parents shouldn’t knock each other: we all love our children; we’re all doing the best we can; and the spectacular survival and success of the human race suggests our best is pretty darn good.)
But alas, we were doing it all wrong, apparently.
We shouldn’t have made Bink share a bedroom with her younger brothers, for instance. (Presumably it never occurred to this worthy agony aunt that there are some who can’t afford a bedroom for each child. It obviously hadn’t occurred to her that Bink preferred it like that, and had chosen to share a room with Alex and Ben rather than sleep on her own.)
Nor should we be in the habit of watching the tv with our children, as we had been doing on the evening before she disappeared. This was interfering, oppressive and over-controlling in the extreme. No wonder Bink ran away, if our children had so little freedom...
It’s silly to be hurt by it, I know. Such journalism is a game, not to be taken seriously.
(As it happens, there was a return match many years later, when Virginia visited Serena’s school, and Serena came home hooting with laughter at her hilarious advice. A teenager has authority no mother has, and I was able to relate the scene, in Serena’s witty words, in my own paper. Sadly Virginia wasn’t able to take my tap on the chin with the reticence I had exercised over her blow some years earlier, and retaliated in the letters page. I believe, more than once...)
None of it matters. Some of it was funny. It is all a very long time ago now.
What does matter, still today, is something which has only hit me now, with deep sorrow, as I relate these events with the objectivity of twenty-one years’ reflection.
Bink’s brief disappearance was in every national newspaper. Most of which chose to comment, in one way or another, giving plentiful unasked-for opinions on the incident.
Was there no psychiatrist, or psychologist, or therapist, or mental health worker of any kind whatsoever, reading all these words, seeing all this spewing-out of unnecessary and sometimes vitriolic analysis, who could have joined the dots for us? Who might have had an inkling that this is not the normal behaviour of a happy twelve-year-old, living in an intact family?
Who might have rung alarm bells? Who might have helped?
Who might have said, perhaps Bink isn’t well? Perhaps there is an explanation for her need to run? Perhaps she could be taken to someone who knows more. Perhaps diagnosed...
So that perhaps we – and far more important, she – could have been spared much of the last twenty-one years of almost unbearable pain.
(And the tax-payer, if we want to care about such things, over a million quid.)
Bink is coming home late tonight, from the Priory, for Christmas Day.
Her next month is assured: she is repeating the bootcamp programme, which has done her much good already. After that, mists of uncertainty swirl into the future.
Sufficient unto the year be the evil thereof.
There will be no posts from me now until Epiphany. (Except possibly a picture of a partridge in a pear tree, if I can find one.)
Please enjoy your Twelve Days of Christmas, as best you can. And, if you will, rejoin me – and Bink – in the New Year.
On Twelfth Night... or what you will.