by Sharon Kernot

I dial Triple 0. This is the moment I have dreaded. This is the moment I have lived many times over in my imagination. I have seen it on the news, I have seen it in the newspapers and I have seen it on all those cop shows. I
am transported back to the Beaumont children, to the Truro murders and the Bodies in the Barrels.

'Fire, Police or Ambulance?'
'Police,' I say.
There's a pause. Someone answers and asks the operator for a reference number. I don't hear the number.
'You requested the police?'
'What's the problem?'
'My daughter. My ten year old daughter is missing.' The words echo chillingly in my ears. My ten year old daughter is missing. Missing.

'Where do you live?'
I tell her and there's a brief pause.
'Is your name Sharon?'
'Yes. Yes it is.'
'What is your daughter's name?'
'Jessie. She's with her friend, Natasha. They're both ten. They're only ten.'
'How long have they been missing?'
'About an hour, an hour and a half. That's all. I know it isn't long but we live in the country near the bush. She's not answering our calls. It's cold. It's almost dark. We don't know any of the close neighbours so she couldn't be visiting.' I keep my voice calm. I speak slowly. I don't want to have to repeat anything. I don't want to waste any time and I don't want them to think that I am over-reacting. 'Although we live in the country, there's a long stretch of road in front of the house, it's six kilometres long. It's isolated.' I swallow hard and try to push away the lump in my throat.

The passing cars are my main concern. Abduction is my fear. How hard would it be to coax two young ten year-old girls into a car? What would it take? From where I stand, I can see the driveway through the slatted Venetian blinds.
An image of the girls walking along the road and a small, white car pulling up beside them appears in my mind - in my imagination.

'What is Jessie wearing?'
'A bright red t-shirt, jeans and brown sneakers.'
'And Natasha?'
'I'm not sure. long sleeves and jeans I think. She'll be warmer than Jessie.'
'Our dog's gone too. His name is Henry.'
'What sort of dog?'
'Small, black and white. A little Jack Russell type of dog. You know .'
'Okay. We'll get a police car out to you very soon.'
'Very soon.'

I stare out of the window for a moment. I'm cold. Winter has set in. It was sunny earlier today, there are no clouds in the sky and the night has turned icy. I want to go out and look for the girls but I can't, I'm waiting for a phone call from Natasha's mother. I don't have her number. The last time Natasha came, I scribbled it down on a scrap of paper and promptly lost it. I was about to write it down again when she dropped Natasha off this afternoon but we decided not to worry because the girls know it and would tell me if necessary. Who would have thought?

I walk down to Jessie's room. The stillness in the house is disturbing; the lack of noise deafening. In Jessie's room, I take the address book from her top draw and look for Natasha's phone number. It's not there. What am I going to say to her mother? I look at my watch. It's almost six o'clock. She was expecting Natasha to be home at five. She must be very worried now. The call can't be far away then I will be free to search again. But where?

We searched earlier. At 4.45 it was time to take Natasha home, I'd looked at my watch, annoyed with myself for not having rounded up the girls earlier. I was running late, had got caught up with some work in the study. The last
time I'd seen Natasha was around four or four-fifteen when she came inside to use the bathroom. Jessie, I assumed wouldn't be far away. Shortly before, I had seen them both running through the orchard with Henry leaping after

Our property is in the Adelaide Hills approximately 40 minutes North-East of Adelaide. The suburbs are close but we're classified 'rural'. We have five acres of land and half of it is natural bush. We love the resident koalas, kangaroos and bird life. Jessie likes to explore things on a micro level and has always been fascinated with insects. The girls had been in the orchard earlier in the day, picking unripe lemons. They'd brought them inside, sliced them up and made sour lemonade.

When I went outside to round-up the girls, the first thing that struck me was the quiet. Jessie is not a quiet girl. Something shifted in my stomach. Call it mother's intuition, call it what you like but at that moment I knew something was wrong. I went to the wood shed and asked my partner, Owen, if he'd seen the girls. He'd been outside for the past half-hour or so chopping wood for the combustion heater.

'Natasha has to go home,' I tell him and look at my watch. 'I'm running late.'
'Haven't seen them,' he said. 'I thought they were inside.'
Concerned, I ran down to the bush to search for them while Owen went looking in the orchard and the tree-house near the dam. I couldn't see the girls. I called and whistled and shouted. My voice travelled a long way in the quiet
of dusk. Other than my own echo and the barking of the neighbour's dogs, there was no reply.
Owen jogged down the hill toward me. 'The girls aren't in the orchard or the tree house.'
'Something's wrong,' I said. 'They're not answering.'
'They'll be fine. They'll be somewhere.'

I ran up the hill, back to the house and charged into Jessie's bedroom. I looked under the bed, in the wardrobe and behind the door in the hope that they were hiding from me. It's an old game she used to play when she didn't
want her friends to go home. A very old game, she hadn't played it for years.

'Jessie! Jessie!'
'They're not in the house,' her brother Matt said, still staring into hyperspace.
He would know. He's fourteen and doesn't tolerate ten-year-old girls well.
'Haven't seen her for ages.'
'They're missing. I can't find them.'
He turned away from the computer.
'I've looked everywhere.'

He got up from his seat and we went outside together. Owen was walking back up the hill from the bush. He'd been down to the dry creek and up the other side but there was no sign of them. He shook his head.
'They're not out there. We'd hear them. They must have gone out onto the road somewhere.'

The road. This was my fear. The bush is friendly in comparison. I could deal with the possibility of them being lost in the bush but not on an isolated country road. An image from my childhood came back. I was six or seven when
a man drove up beside me. He had lollies. He wanted me to show him where the kindergarten was. I pointed to it, it was just down the road but he wanted me to climb into his car and show him. I backed away and ran. Would Jessie
run? Would Natasha? What would it take to get two ten year-olds and a dog into a strange car?

'Perhaps they went to visit Sonya's horses,' Owen suggested.
'They wouldn't,' I said. 'They'd ask. It's too far. They know they're not allowed near the road.'
'I'll drive.'

The sun was setting rapidly. There was just the smallest strip of orange in view over the hills. We each headed off in different directions in search of the girls. I travelled to the end of our long road and back but there was no sign of them. I hoped Owen was right, I hoped they had gone to Sonya's to visit the horses although deep down I knew it wasn't something they'd be likely to do. But what would they do? Where could they be?

When I drove into our driveway, Matt was riding back in. They weren't at the tennis courts nor anywhere in between. I ran down to the bush again and called and called. 'Jessie! Natasha! Henry!' Surely, the dog would hear me even if they couldn't.

Owen's car pulled into the driveway, headlights blazing. I ran to meet him full of hope but he climbed out shaking his head. The sun had set; the sky had turned inky. 'I'll get the torch and keep looking,' Owen said.
'I'll phone the police.'

The phone rings, it's the call I've been waiting for. I pick it up.
'Julie. Hello. I've been waiting for your call. Sorry I didn't phone earlier but I didn't have your number.' My voice is coming out in a rush, in a panic. I take a short breath and then say, 'I don't want to alarm you but I can't find the girls. They've been missing for about an hour. We've looked everywhere and there's no sign of them. I've called the police, they're on their way.'

There's the briefest pause the other end. I feel awful. Not only have I lost my daughter, I've also lost her daughter.
'I'll be there as soon as I can,' she says.
'Okay. Good. See you soon.'
The tears come and blur my vision. I quickly brush them away; I need to stay calm.

Two police cars pull up outside and I run out to meet them. There are three police officers in all, they are relaxed but concerned. They ask me questions, my answers are vague. Stress is affecting my memory. The night is getting colder and darker. They tell us they have fired up a helicopter with heat seeking equipment on board that will be able to detect the girls if they are in the bush.

Two of them go to search for the girls in the house. They say it's the first place they have to check. 'Go ahead,' I say even though I know they won't find them there. The other officer asks where we saw them last and we head out in that direction. He and Owen have torches and I stumble along behind on the rocky ground. We go to the orchard and the tree-house and the empty dam. As we stand in the paddock looking up at the tree house, I hear something.
Something faint like a baby crying. It could be a cat or a night bird but I say, 'I can hear something.'
The dogs next door start barking.
'It came from over there,' I say pointing to the bush.
We head in that general direction, the noise is louder. I strain my ears over the barking hounds. It's sobbing. Jessie's loud sobbing. 'It's them!'
Owen and the police officer sprint off toward the noise. Without the aid of torches I stumble and fall after them.

The girls come out of the bush, a couple of properties along. They're cold and distressed. Jessie's tear-streaked face is blotchy, her sobs like hiccups, she's clutching her little dog Henry close to her chest. Natasha is crying quietly beside her. I run and hug them all.

By the time Natasha's mum arrives, the police have gone and the girls are feeling a little better. They tells us that they chased Henry when he ran off. They went over one fence and then another which took them outside our boundary and they kept on following until they caught him. When they turned to go home, they realised that they didn't know which way to go. Jessie wanted to go in one direction, Natasha in another. They thought about splitting up but fortunately decided to stick together. Once the sun had set, they were extremely frightened but kept on going.

Apart from a few scratches and probably a nightmare or two, the girls came out unscathed. I on the other hand, came away with an important lesson. I never would have thought Jessie would go beyond the boundary. I guess I never thought. Children are full of surprises. Can we really predict what they will do? How they will act? Next time Jessie wants to go bush, she's taking a whistle, her mobile phone and the dog's going on a lead. That takes care of the bush
but what about that road?


© Sharon Kernot

“A gender-equal society would be one where the word ‘gender’ does not exist: where everyone can be themselves.”*

I’ve always been aware of gender conditioning and actively tried to combat any lingering prejudices or stereotypes in my own parenting, even down to encouraging dolls with my boys when they were little. It’s great to read people writing about gender issues they’re experiencing with their kids. For too long these subjects have been discouraged or silenced. I’d love to publish some more creative writing on this topic, especially if you are struggling with a child who actively tries to move away from gender normative preferences. A society where everyone can be themselves thanks Gloria for those aspirational words.

Share your thoughts

* Gloria Steinem