It’s not a great photo, not really, all a bit blurred, out of focus, but the police said they needed one that showed her face clearly and the nice policewoman liked this one, liked the dog, said it might catch people’s attention, they might look harder, because of the dog.
When they were little, Fern and Jason, I used to worry about them, worry that they’d be taken from me, that somehow I’d loose them. It wasn’t just the usual stuff, road accidents, childhood cancers. Deep down, I was convinced that someone would steal them, drag them kicking and screaming into a white van, lure them into a family saloon with promises of kittens or sweeties.
I tried to keep them safe, lectured them on stranger danger, didn’t let them hang around parks or shopping centres, made sure I always knew where they were.
And as they got older, bigger, the fears receded, I began to relax, sure that my children were safe now.
But it would take just one newspaper story, one teary interview with a parent clutching a battered cuddly toy for the fear to grow again and I would have to ring them, check that they were safe, ask them when were they coming home.
Because then, i still believed that the worst thing that could happen was for someone, a bad person, to take your child from you.
But I was wrong, because this, this is the worst thing.
No-one took my Fern from me, my daughter took herself away from me and there was nothing I could do to keep her safe from that.
On the 1st of September 2011, my daughter Fern got into her car, drove towards work and no-one has ever seen her since.
I can write this sentence down, I can even say it out loud, but I cannot hope to explain what that sentence actually feels like, what it is to live with that sentence, day after day, after week,after month.
I didn’t start worrying when she was an hour late, even two hours late. A late meeting, I thought, drinks with her colleagues. I pretended to myself, even as I clock watched, that everything was fine.
I rang her mobile , switched off.
I gritted my teeth and rang her brother, it’s hard to have a black sheep child when you only have two children, but Jason has worked hard for this, seems proud of this status.
He sounded surprised to hear from me, even more puzzled by my question, no he hadn’t seen Fern, no he didn’t know where she was or what she was doing. I could visualise the face he was pulling throughout the brief conversation, mouthing something to Her, that woman he lives with.
Suddenly, i thought that Fern might be trying to ring me, to explain what had gone wrong, I cut short the stilted conversation with my son and sat, looking at the phone, willing it to ring.
It was almost a relief when midnight arrived and i could admit to myself that something was terribly, terribly wrong.
I had my first conversation with a police officer, i ignored his patronising tone, a 25 year old woman doesn’t come home to mummy. I knew what he was thinking, but pushed on, finally receiving a half hearted commitment to check with the traffic police and contact the local hospitals.
I sat all night in darkness, periodically trying her mobile, still switched off. At one point, I became convinced that it was my phone that was at fault and dug around the dining table drawer for my ancient and rarely used mobile and listened to my own phone ring in the hallway.
The next morning, I rang her office to be told that she hadn’t been to work for 2 days and that they hoped she would feel better soon.
I rang the police again, made a fuss. I think they only sent someone round to shut me up and it wasn’t even a real policeman, just one of those pretend ones,the ones you see on bicycles wearing lots of hi viz gear.
But, give him his dues, he listened, took some notes, suggested that we check her room. I looked at him blankly, did he think she was hiding up there?
Because, of course , I was still thinking of some outside agency, a kidnapping, road accident, instant amnesia, but I nodded and we both went upstairs, the dog, subdued, confused, following us.
He was very kind when I broke down, made me sweet tea, asked if there was someone he could ring. I just stared at him, my worlds greatest mum mug held carefully in both hands.
Her bedroom was neat, but amongst the neatness, gaps.
Her suitcase missing, contact lens solution absent from her dressing table, her stuffed rabbit toy gone.
The almost policeman patted my hand, said it wasn’t uncommon , sometimes people just needed a break from their lives, said they usually came back a few days later.
But she didn’t.
Time passed, the nice police officer, by then I had a proper policeman, well policewoman, the one who talked about the photo, the dog photo, told me about support groups, Internet forums.
I joined them, talked to other families, but no one could explain why Fern, my Fern would do this.
At first, I ignored the dog, ferns’ dog but then I felt guilty, what would happen when, never if, she came back and the dog looked neglected, unloved.
I started taking her for walks, met this group of people, the 7am, the 6pm dog walkers, they all knew Fern, recognised Sasha.
I know them all pretty well know, they never ask directly, just ask how things are and I say the same and then we walk around the park together. Twice a day, 7 days a week while I wait for Fern to come home.