Gail Aldwin explains how losing her son on a beach in France became inspiration for her debut novel, The String Games.
Twenty years ago this summer, I arranged to stay at a house in Hondarribia, Spain. As teachers, Jane and I wanted to make the most of the long summer holiday and with our daughters both aged five, and my son a lively three year old, we made a happy holiday group. Part of the home-swap arrangement allowed use of a car and with Hondarribia situated close to the French border, we dipped in and out of both countries to find the best beaches.
The town of Saint-Jean-de-Luz has a beautiful beach situated close to the centre. We admired it on our journeys to Biarritz and promised to stop there. It was difficult to park the afternoon we visited and the beach was busy. By the time we’d humped beach bags and found a space to make a camp, the children were pestering for a swim. But as my children are fair, applying sunscreen was the first priority. After lathering Jonathan, I started on my daughter and when she was covered, I looked up to find my son had vanished. My eyes darted around the beach, he was usually so easy to spot with his white blond hair and pale skin. Standing up for a better view, I just couldn’t see him. I wandered along the beach and up to a breaker where loads of children were paddling and shrieking. He wasn’t there. Although the sun beat down, I was strangely cold and shivery. The sound of my heart beating echoed in my ears.
I rushed to where Jane was playing with the girls. Initially she was dismissive of my panic but when she couldn’t spot him either, the seriousness of the situation was confirmed. It only occurred to me at that moment, how vulnerable children are in a country where they don’t speak the language. Regrets came flooding. I should have taught him a word or two, just in case. Jane managed to scrabble together enough French to organise an announcement for a lost child. The ping-pong of the tannoy brought the beach to silence and then the words describing my son came. A woman sitting nearby muttered about the English always losing their children but no one signalled they’d found my boy and so the holiday noises resumed.
A hollow, empty feeling made me weak. I kept thinking that Jonathan’s father would never forgive me for losing his son. And then I galvanised enough energy to walk the other way along the beach, shouting his name, drawing attention to the fact I was the English woman who had lost her child. The whole beach became a smear of ugly colours. The sand under my feet stung, and my eyes burnt for the want of seeing him. After thirty minutes of walking, the crowds on the beach thinned. There he was, jumping the waves and laughing to himself. Wrapping my arms around my son, he had no idea of the panic he’d caused or my desperate search for him.
The sense of being absolutely rigid with fear that Jonathan had been abducted has never left me. And when I came to write The String Games, it seemed that losing a child, even for a few minutes, is an almost universal experience for parents. This became the catalyst for the novel but rather than telling the story from the viewpoint of a parent, I wanted to explore what this might mean for an elder sister. Thus my ten-year-old protagonist, Nim, was created and readers follow her journey from the time of the abduction when she harbours misplaced feelings of responsibility for this loss, to the repercussions of the tragedy in her teenage years and finally as an adult, when she is able to address issues of unresolved grief and move forward with her life.
Writing any story is a journey of discovery and for me, the novel has enabled me to think more deeply about the obstacles life throws at us and to forgive myself for a lapse in parenting that meant my son went missing on a beach in France.
The String Games will be released by Victorina Press on 28 May 2019 and is currently available for pre-order:
You can find out more about Gail Aldwin on Twitter @gailaldwin, and on her blog https://gailaldwin.com