The first in a series of posts about our half-term trip in our camper van to France, Belgium and the Netherlands
On the first Saturday morning of the half term holiday, Dover-Dunkirk ferry departures are running seriously behind schedule, following a night of Force 10 gales in the English Channel.
Slowly our camper van edges through immigration control, where we learn that the ferry we’re due to catch has been marooned outside the harbour for 10 hours as the sea was too rough for it to dock. In those circumstances, I’m happy to wait the predicted eight hours before we can expect to board.
In the meantime, we have needs which must be attended to. As soon as our camper van reaches its allocated parking space to await departure, my ten-year-old daughter Laura and I nip across to the port’s Food Village to use the loo.
Disappointingly, the enticingly-named Food Village turns out to be exactly like the inside of any British motorway service station. The upside is that we can easily find the Ladies’. Our mission accomplished, I’m just waiting for Laura to finish washing her hands when a wide-eyed lady, aged about 30, dashes in crying “Where can I put my baby down?”
The little girl in her arms is about nine months old. Wearing a plum-coloured hand-knitted jumper and a pink hat shaped like a flower, she looks like an Anne Geddes photo. Someone’s Grandma loves them.
The lady’s eyes become even wider when she realises there’s no playpen or baby seat in which to secure her little flower while Mummy uses the facilities.
“Here, would you like me to take her for you?” I offer, thinking wistfully that it’s been a long time since I’ve held a baby that small.
Without a moment’s hesitation the lady thrusts her baby into my arms and dashes into a cubicle. After a moment, she starts talking loudly to me through the door, and I realise that she’s seeking reassurance that I’m still there. I answer immediately to make it clear that I haven’t fled with her baby and leapt on a ferry to parts unknown.
Her baby, meanwhile, is unperturbed, responding to the unfamiliar setting as if it’s a giant activity centre. She turns her little head towards the source of each new sound, open mouthed with wonder – roaring hand-driers, fizzing taps, sliding door bolts and slamming doors. She is too preoccupied to notice that I’m not her mum.
After a minute or two, the lady emerges from her cubicle at a more relaxed pace than that of her arrival. Then on catching sight of me with the baby, she goes rigid with horror.
“Oh my god, I’ve just realised what I did there!” she gasps. “I just gave my baby to a total stranger! I was that desperate!”
I smile indulgently.
“Don’t worry, we’ve all done things like that,” I tell her, nodding towards Laura to indicate that I’ve been there, done that, and that my baby lived to tell the tale.
But I know very well how her heart must be pounding, as mine did one day when Laura was tiny, and I left her outside a shop in her buggy in the care of her father. When I came out, they were gone, and I fell into a wild panic. Logically I knew that nothing terrible could have happened – they hadn’t really been kidnapped by aliens and there was a rational explanation for the empty space where I’d expected to find them. Even so, I started running tearfully from shop to shop, stopping only when I found Laura safe and sound a few doors down. She was cooing happily in her buggy in a men’s clothes shop, overseen by the shop assistant, while her Daddy was calmly trying on a pair of trousers in the changing room. I was horrified. It was at that moment that I realised the full force of maternal instinct and the power it had to overwhelm reason.
In Dover’s Food Village, the flowery baby, perhaps suddenly realising the enormity of the situation, starts to cry. I’m relieved to return her to the familiarity of her mother’s arms and to lead my own child back to the haven of our camper van.
Coming next: how our lack of forward planning means we end up in Belgium instead of France.
If you liked this post, you might also enjoy:
- The Perils of the Supermarket (about an unlikely confrontation over a Tesco toilet)
- Bubble Mum (a post about how bubble gum proves an unlikely bond between mother and daughter on a French motorway)
- The Camper Van Salute (essential reading for anyone planning to travel by camper)