Thursday 22 August 2019

Brendan O'Connor: 'About a boy'

It's a strange thing to randomly find a small child, but it would give you faith in people, says Brendan O'Connor

‘His whole body convulsed in a huge, silent sob’. Stock photo
‘His whole body convulsed in a huge, silent sob’. Stock photo
Brendan O'Connor

Brendan O'Connor

I probably wouldn't have noticed it. And I wonder if I had, how much I would have intervened. I might have asked them what was going on and then, reassured, left them to get on with it. But my wife is both more observant and more prone to getting involved than I am. And so it was that we found a small boy, and I found myself carrying him along the road.

What she noticed initially was something we are all probably very finely attuned to at the moment. Two boys, who could have been about 10, were coaxing a little boy along the road. The little boy wasn't so much crying, it was more his whole body would convulse every 10 seconds or so in a huge, largely silent sob. I don't need to tell you what that image of two boys leading a little boy along conjures up, and I don't need to tell you why it's on our minds right now.

The two lads doing the coaxing were with a gang of other lads, some on bikes, gobby lads, that you might tend to avoid. But never judge the book by the cover. They were a sound bunch of lads. The two guys doing the coaxing had an unexpected tenderness with the small boy. "OK, buddy? We'll find your mam now. You're going to be fine, buddy."

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The lads said they had found the boy alone, sitting down by the water. "He could've gone in the water!" one of the lads said indignantly. One of them thought he had seen the small boy in a playground up the road a bit earlier, with maybe an adult and two other kids. So they were bringing him there. We agreed that the boys would go up and check in the playground and in the meantime we would start bringing the small boy towards the Garda station, and we would ask anyone we met along the way if they knew him. We were the adults, so the lads deferred to us on the plan.

We didn't ring the gardai until the lads had come back on their bikes from the playground to say that there was no one there. When we did ring the gardai, they told us to bring the boy to them. I asked them if they couldn't come and get him. He was a small boy, very distressed, and not a fast walker. We could be a while getting him to the station. They had no car available, they said. Even for a missing child? Even for a missing child.

We tried to get the small boy's mother's name out of him, and we asked him if he knew where he lived. He didn't say much, just the big gulps that convulsed his little body, and then, now and then, he would say: "They're not there." When we asked if he knew where he lived, he seemed to point in the direction of the garda station, the direction we were going in anyway.

So I picked him up and off we went, the lads providing a kind of escort, whizzing around on their bikes and shouting around the place, looking for anyone who might know the boy. We asked people we met on the street and we called into the chipper, where there was a crowd of people. No one knew him. One woman suggested we bring him to the priest's house, that he would probably know who he was.

The whole thing was a bit surreal at this stage and uncharted territory, so we kind of took her advice without really thinking. We obeyed. Because you're not sure what to do when you find a small boy. You're kind of wondering, to be honest, how anyone is ever going to find out who he is.

We were heading down around to the priest's house when a car pulled up next to us. Another woman who had been in the chipper listening had obviously thought again, and decided to come and get us. She would bring us to the garda station. We abandoned the search for the priest's house and got in.

The small boy was not keen on getting into the car. Clearly he had been warned not to get into cars with strangers. My wife took him on her lap. She said he was both stiff and shaking with fear and distress. She talked quietly into his ear and told him she had two little girls at home just like him, and eventually she said she felt his little body relax into her. But he still trembled, and lurched with the regular, repetitive, noiseless sob.

I plonked him on the counter in the garda station. The sad thing was that this did not seem to be an unusual situation for the gardai. One of them started taking my details. He asked for my date of birth. I suddenly felt like I was being quizzed and pointed out that I wasn't a suspect here, that I was just someone doing the right thing. "There's a missing child involved," the garda said. And it suddenly struck me that I probably smelt slightly of drink, though any effects of the few pints I had earlier disappeared very quickly when my leisurely evening turned into an Ian McEwan novel.

Was I somehow possibly in the frame here? Did they have to make sure I wasn't some kidnapper who had freaked out and was now trying to get out of it all by presenting here with the kid? Me and the cop compromised on my name and address.

Meanwhile, the other cop was on to another, more central garda station. The small boy had been found about halfway between the two stations, so they figured his parents might have been on to the other station. That garda didn't seem too happy with these parents. He said this kind of thing is happening in every garda station around Ireland every day.

I was still wondering how the hell they were going to figure out who the kid was. We had got his first name out of him, but he wasn't offering any other information. I needn't have worried, of course. Within minutes the cop told us the kid's mother had just rung the other station. He asked the boy if he wanted to talk to his mam. They got her on the phone. It sounded like she wasn't too happy with the kid. After the boy spoke to her, he tried to bolt out of the station. Clearly, he figured he was in trouble. I suspect the mother wasn't going to get a great reception from the cops either. We left them all to it and headed off.

The whole thing was very banal but a bit unsettling and surreal, so I decided I needed a drink. We went into the nearest pub. A guy in there, with a few on board, was insisting on hugging me. After he was gone, I noticed my jacket smelt a bit of urine. "Did that guy smell of piss?" I asked my wife. She gave me a sad, sheepish look. "No..." "Had the boy wet himself?" "No…", she said. I guess he just smelt a bit of neglect.

I don't know what we take from all this. I could speculate and tell you a couple of other things, but let's give everyone their privacy here. One thing I suppose we can take from it is that it's heartening, in these fearful times we live in, that everyone from the young lads, to everyone we met, to the woman who drove us to the garda station, to the gardai themselves, did the right thing. So you can only assume that practically everyone would do the right thing in this situation.

So while his poor mother must have been beside herself imagining him all alone out there in the big, bad world, in reality everybody the boy encountered all did their small bit to keeping him safe and getting him home. And that's something. Isn't it?

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