Scheenagh Harrington loves being a parent, even when she doesn’t. And anyone who wants to mess with her family had better watch out. Seriously…
I know the picture-postcard version of how la vie en France is supposed to go: the stone cottage set in acres of rolling hills; summer evenings spent sipping wine and nibbling warm baguette on the terrace, while the sound of clanking boules in the distance punctuate the deafening birdsong.
Okay, so perhaps it’s not quite THAT picture-perfect, but you get the idea. We have been living our French dream for five years now, but every now and then something happens that makes us stop, look and wonder…
We don’t live in the aforementioned cottage. Our home (which is actually an apartment, but I’ve never liked the idea so cling stubbornly to the word house) is fondly called ‘the bunker’, because it’s square, grey and singularly unattractive.
We don’t have a garden to speak of – just a few feet of borrowed earth where we can cultivate a few veggies. And it’s rarely the sound of boules that disturbs our evening peace – more often than not it’s some git on a sputtering moped. But these were the compromises we made with wide-open eyes when we downsized last year.
Despite those few niggles, we were happy in our own version of the French dream.
Did you spot it, that past tense? Bit of a giveaway, isn’t it? But it’s also a little misleading. Yes, we’re still happy here, but a few days ago, the real world intruded on our tiny idyll and threatened to shatter it.
It came in the form of a stranger who approached our two older children, sitting outside on the street one late afternoon, and made what I can only describe as a perverted suggestion to our daughter. She immediately told us, we gave chase and, to cut a long story short, aforementioned pervert is now behind bars – where he will remain for some time.
Hurray, you might think. A victory for common decency and some good PR for the French police. Well, yes and yes to all that, but there’s also been a new, unfamiliar feeling swirling around the back of my head. It’s hard to define precisely (when have I ever been Swiftian and used five words where 30 would do?) but it’s a mixture of guilt, shame, worry and anger.
I feel so guilty that we didn’t see this man, when it emerged at least two of our neighbours spotted him lurking up and down our tiny street during the day. I’m ashamed I didn’t run like the fucking wind when I saw him going into the building where he lived and kick him in the bollocks (I decided the police needed to be involved, and beating him up might harm our chances of getting him locked up, but still…). I’m worried now, that I can’t send our older two children out to play in our normally quiet cul-de-sac.
But most of all I’m angry. I’m incandescent with rage that even a shred of my daughter’s innocence has been stripped away. (She, for the record, is fine and has happily carried on with being her pre-pre-teen self, obsessed with going to Paris for her 10th birthday and anything linked to Violetta.) She should NOT have had to deal with this situation. She should NOT have been placed within a million miles of harm’s way. Yet harm came looking for her.
As a parent, no matter where in the world you live, you know it’s a fundamental requirement of your job to keep your children safe. Screw that up, and there’s no feeling quite like it. As we shake off the dark clouds of this bitter incident (writing this is a form of expulsion for selfish moi), the TV is on in the background and I’m reminded of what’s going on in the Middle East.
I’m not suggesting for one moment that our little bump in the road is anything like the horrors people are facing over there, but it is another example of innocence being lost in the worst way.
My heart bleeds for the children whose faces flit across the giant TV screens of western audiences. We stand, arms crossed, sipping a cup of coffee and tutting at the latest atrocities as if they were a Hollywood movie, before turning away and doing the hoovering – and I’m as guilty of it as the next.
Violence and violations against children have become part of the fabric of everyday life and it’s only when it touches you personally, when you feel that icy chill run down your back when your child tells you “a bad man has said something”, or you feel the bomb blast hit your skin that you realise: it shouldn’t be this way. But what do we do?
I’m writing this at 6am. I was woken up about an hour earlier by a group of adults who were arguing while making their way up the street that gently curves around our house. After I fumed silently at them for half an hour, they ended up opposite my sons’ room, where the arguing got louder.
Enough was enough. I flung open the front door and hissed at them to move on, as I had children who were trying to sleep. There’s every chance I could have made things worse and ended up nose-to-nose with a couple of drunk, irate strangers, but they did as I asked, and the boys nodded on.
It all brings me rather neatly to my conclusion, which is: life really is what you make it. We live on the very edge of a less-than sparkling bit of town, yet the people who also call this quartier home have been uniformly wonderful, so I bloody well refuse to let the darker side of things gobble up the life we’re trying to build. Shouting at noisy strangers and helping take perverts off the street won’t make headlines, but it makes me feel like I’m doing something to make things better.
All I hope now is that something similar happens – but on a much bigger scale – in those far-flung places where it really needs to.