Cathy Stagg

Life before cell phones

The race on TV reaches a crescendo, commentators yell, the checkered flag waves, and there’s great excitement on the screen and the lounge. “Mommy, Mommy, the cars are finished, can we go meet Daddy?”

Mommy is packing baby gear. Finally, she’s ready. Joanne, aged four, sits next to Daniel in his baby seat. Their mother edges the maroon Hillman down the driveway. At a sedate pace, nothing like the Grand Prix display, she drives to a friend’s house near the raceway, far from the flat where they live.

There are rolling lawns, trees – but no cars, no people. Where are all the guys? Where’s the braai? Two huge dogs walk up to the car, pale blue eyes staring.

“Mom, let me out, I want to play with the dogs,” Jo says, tugging at the child-locked handle.

“No!” her mother snaps. “Those dogs don’t bark, they just bite – I’ve heard about how they attacked someone silly enough to trespass here.”

Time ticks by. “Mommmmmeeeeee, I need a wee!”

“OK, darling, but this house is locked; we’ll go to the hotel in the village.”

On the way, the car begins to shudder. Oh no, not another breakdown! They go into the hotel, use the loo, then she phones for help. But no one answers at the flat, or at the house where the party is to be held.  

“Let’s have a cold drink,” she says. Most seats in the lounge are filled by rowdy men discussing the Grand Prix. The children race around, attracting the drinkers’ attention – and they try to strike up conversation with the young woman. She’s distracted. Where’s her husband, why has that wretched car broken down again, why are the children being impossible? A sense of humour might help – but it’s missing, just like Daddy.

Where is Missing Dad? Still at the track, watching the race after the main event. Because the couple shares a car, he’s getting a lift from a friend. And the motor sport fans want to see everything. 

Back at the hotel, the children are fractious. They should be having their bath, getting ready for supper. 

“Sorry,” she says to the manager, “may I use the phone again?” The ring tone goes on and on. “Could I take a room for the night?” she asks, aware she can’t pay but assuming that by morning her husband will materialise.
“I’m sorry,” the manager says, “there are none available – we’re renovating.”

Thinking of running the gauntlet of the increasingly pushy men in the lounge, her body sags. “No, wait!” the manager says. “I have kids of my own; I can see you’re tired. I’ll let you use a room for free. But if the hotel board finds out, we’d lose our licence.”

“Oh! Thank you! Of course we won’t tell anyone.”

She is bathing the children when there’s a knock at the door. A waitress holds a tray – supper with compliments of the management. Then the manager’s daughter asks Joanne to play on the trampoline. From a potential disaster, this is turning out rather well.

Meanwhile, Darling Daddy arrives at the party. No sign of his family. So he asks his friend to take him home. “Drop me at the driveway, thanks for the lift; I know you want to get back.” Walking towards the flat’s front door, he hears the phone. Hurrying, he looks for his keys. Not his jacket pockets, nor trousers, where are they? Nowhere! He sits on the doorstep. The phone rings periodically but he can’t answer it. It’s dark and cold.

On his way back to the party, the friend passes the country hotel and sees a familiar sedan, with its baby seat. He returns to the flat. “Your car’s in the village,” he says, “we better find out what’s happened.”

At the hotel, the night manager is irritated by two men insisting that a car outside proves a woman and two children are there. “They may have been earlier, but not on my shift. Look for yourself, not in the lounge, nothing in the hotel register. Maybe she left with someone.”

At the friend’s house, Daddy lies awake. Where is she? Did she leave with someone? Who? Willingly? Coerced? Where are the children? Oh, God, where are they?

In the morning, Mommy and children are having breakfast when he returns to the hotel, to start searching. Joanne yells: “Daddy, Daddy!” He ignores her and glares at his wife, who glares back. “Where the hell were you?” they both demand. Silence. Then they start talking at once. Joanne interrupts: “Daddy, Daddy, I can do ‘bollamakiesie’ on the trampoline, come see!” But Daddy is staring at Mommy. “I thought I’d never see you again,” he says, and hugs her to him. Eyes mist with tears of relief.