Thursday 23 November 2017

David Diebold: 'My youngest is travelling abroad on her own - and I'm terrified'

Emily and David Diebold with Sammy (16) and Jessica (13) pictured in 2015
Emily and David Diebold with Sammy (16) and Jessica (13) pictured in 2015

David Diebold

THE youngest is travelling abroad on her own for the first time, which is, quite frankly, terrifying. At the laissez-faire age of 15, she prepares for this adventure by staying out with her friends until 11pm on the night before she’s supposed to fly.

I’m tasked to go to the local supermarket and buy some boiled sweets for her journey. ‘Boiled sweets’ immediately dates me. “Do you mean toffees?” says a helpful shop assistant after I realise I’ve been staring at the sweet section, muttering to myself for far too long. “Um,” is all I can say. I grab a pack of hard mints and flee to the checkout.

Our eldest was 18 when he revealed plans to meet up with a friend in France, an expedition which required him negotiating the Paris underground alone. The very prospect almost finished us off. “If I get lost, I’ll just ask a stranger,” he joked. “Bearded men in long macs are okay, right?” When the day came, we were glued to the phone throughout, and had to help each other off the ceiling every time it rang.

I’d be less on edge if I was a better solo traveller myself. The sad fact is, as the kids might say, I ‘suck’. The eldest is right on one count, however: there’s no underestimating the kindness of strangers, especially when they see a grown man with a suitcase standing in the middle of a train station in Chicago, staring at a vast and complex train information sign and blubbering like a baby.

But that’s another story. Suffice to say, Paddington Bear is like Bear Grylls next to me.

The youngest surprises us by arriving home promptly at 11pm. “I got you some sweets,” I tell her. “Cool,” she says, poking at them. “Are you all packed?” I say. “Have we got a suitcase?” she says. “I’ll take that as a no,” I growl.

Her mother organises her. I am not qualified to do much more than quietly fret. “What airline are you flying?” I ask, trying to make conversation. “I'd know,” she shrugs. I wince.

I was just a few years older when I flew to London alone. The plane was diverted and a coach picked up passengers to transfer us to the original destination. It stopped at a hotel in the middle of the city, and I thought it was the final stop. I helped a tanned man with a bandaged hand wrestle his bags off the bus then watched as the coach departed with everyone else.

“I will help you find the neksht bush,” said the man with a thick Dutch slur. “You have plenty of time,” he said. “Come up-shtairsh and we will make a party.” He grinned, showing gold teeth, and held up two bottles of cognac. I helped him to an elevator with his bags, then stepped out just as the doors closed. “Hey,” I heard him shout. It was one of the smartest things I’ve ever done.

“Please tell me you’re not dressing like that tomorrow,” I say at the door of her room. She has a crop top on that shows her skinny belly. “Get out,” she says and thunders over to slam the door. “You realise it’s November,” I tell the door.

Sleepless after midnight, I listen to the thudding noises and wonder what she’s packing. I’m seized by the sudden need to fetch the sewing kit and stitch her name into her clothes. On the outside. “If lost, return to...”

I was an adult, whatever that means, when I flew to Chicago without the family to see my mother, a three-hour journey from the city by rail on a train that only left once a day. What could go wrong? Leaving my passport in the seat pocket of the plane is what.

I had to wait for the cleaning crew to finish and deliver my passport to the irritable ground crew member, who held it out of reach as he lectured me on safekeeping protocols for valuable documents. I then had to negotiate the rest of O’Hare Airport, a taxi, rush-hour traffic, and Union Station, which was like an evacuation scene from War of the Worlds.

And all in a tiny crop top T-shirt.

No, wait. That’s not me. That’s... I wrestle with my pillow. It’s two in the morning now and the thudding has stopped. All the youngest has to do is to make it to her gate on time. There’s a system for minors. Drop off one end, pick up on the other. She’ll be fine.

I remember looking at the huge electronic information board with trains to every corner of the States. I tried to decipher my ticket. Tick-tock. My train was due to leave... any minute. I imagined my elderly mother waiting at the other end with no phone and I did what any fully-grown man would do in such circumstances. I burst into tears.  

I felt my ticket being snatched out of my hand by a train guard. He looked at it. “Oh, for crying out loud,” he snapped, which was rather apt, before frog-marching me down crowded platforms and onto a waiting train. “Next time, arrive early,” he shouted, slamming the door. “And maybe go easier on the beer.”

“But I didn’t...” I tried, as the train heaved into motion.

“How was your journey?” I remember my mother asking at the other end.

“Great,” I lied.

I dream all night of the youngest, bouncing happily through Departures, leaving a breadcrumb trail of cash and travel documents, and when I finally wake up, bleary-eyed, I hear the early-morning bustle of last-minute preparations downstairs.

“Passport, tickets, money,” I drone to nobody, shuffling between the cogs of a well-oiled machine.

The front door slams. The car outside rumbles to life.

I didn’t even get to say goodbye properly, but I’m pretty sure she was wearing a proper jacket.

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