The House Dad Chronicles: The day our kids went missing in the woods
I'm not going to over-elaborate this story for sensational dramatic effect. What happened was nothing in the great scheme of things.
Nothing remotely compared to the tragedies of Madeleine McCann or Tia Sharp. And this week, the story on Parentdish.co.uk about the 12-year-old boy, Jack Butler, who foiled a would-be kidnapper by karate chopping him when the predator tried to drag him into a car park while on holiday in Lanzarote.
But it's because of public awareness of what happened to those children – and thousands like them – that just recently, my wife and I were gripped by 45 minutes of creeping panic that erupted into angry hysteria.
It could have happened to anyone. It does happen to anyone, pretty much every day of the week. According to the Child Exploitation and Online Protection centre (CEOP), 140,000 children go missing in the UK every year – that's one every three minutes.
This staggering statistic was calculated by using recently collated figures. It includes teenage runaways, parental abductions, unexplained disappearances and kidnaps.
This kind of stuff affects you, as a parent. And it was uppermost in my mind during an incident that happened on a Sunday recently.
The five of us went out for a walk to the park near our home.
It's a big, rambling park, full of open spaces and woods. The kids love it. And so, about an hour into our sojourn, my wife and I decided to stop at a bench and read the papers while our three children, aged 10, seven and four, played in the woods behind us.
We could pretty much hear them all the time, collecting fallen branches to build a den, whistling while they worked.
But there came a point when we mustn't have been able to her them. So wrapped up were we with our Sunday supplements that we'd zoned everything out around us.
After a while, I felt a few spots of rain on my head, so I folded my paper and declared it was time to set off for home.
My wife shouted for the kids. "Daisy! Tom! Sam!'"
But there was no reply. No big deal. We clambered through a gap in the bushes to where they'd been playing and called them again. Nothing. We looked at each other, didn't say a word, then started to walk along the muddy path through the gorse and bracken in the direction we thought they'd have gone.
"Daisy! Tom! Sam!" their mother called.
"DAISY!" I screamed at the top of my voice.
My wife looked at me. There was concern in her eyes. We'd only been looking for a minute, but it felt like a lot longer. We quickened our pace, raised our voices, started to stumble. We covered, say, 100 yards, but there was no sight nor sound of our children.
"DAISY! TOM! SAM!"
Imagine those words in 10 times the font size. That's how loud I was shouting. But nothing came back.
"Why are we both going in the same direction?" my wife asked.
"They might have gone the other way."
So I was off. Leaping through the undergrowth like a predator in Jurassic Park, all the while shouting: "DAISY! TOM! SAM!"
By now, 10 minutes had gone by. My wife told me later that her imagination had gone into overdrive.
In those few minutes, she'd imagined them being greeted by a stranger and led by the hand through the woods and out of our lives.
Those thoughts hadn't entered my head. I was living in the moment. My anger at them wandering off kept my fear at bay. I came to a path and saw some couples.
"Have you see three children. Oldest nine, youngest three?" I splurted.
They shook their heads.
"If they come this way, would you please keep them here?' I said.
I went back into the woods, by now flailing like a maniac, my head spinning, not knowing what to do or where to turn.
The rain was really coming down by now and I could hardly see through my droplet-speckled glasses.
The clouds overhead made the wood darker and although it was only 4pm, for the first time a thought crossed my mind: "What if we don't find them?"
By now, 15 minutes had elapsed. My wife was on the verge of calling the police, she told me later, but she couldn't get a signal on her mobile.
And then, as I was ploughing through the nettles and spiky flora, I saw a gap between some bushes. I looked through and saw that it led down to a path, and then across the path, another wood. I climbed through, crossed into the other area, then started to shout my lungs out again.
Then I heard a child's voice. It was so weak, I didn't recognise it, but I also couldn't work out which direction it was coming from. I shouted again. Then stopped, stood silent.
"Dad!" I heard. "Daaaaad."
It was my then seven-year-old son, Tom. I ran towards it, then his voice was joined by his older sister's.
And then a sight which made me catch my breath emerged from the 4ft high bracken.
In the middle was Daisy, holding her brothers' hands so tightly she could have cut off their circulation.
They were soaked to the skin, but smiling and chatting. Totally oblivious to the few minutes – and yes, mercifully, it was only a few minutes – of hell they'd put me and their mother through.
But they didn't stay oblivious for long. I went bananas.
"WHERE THE HELL HAVE YOU BEEN? WHAT THE HELL DO YOU THINK YOU'RE PLAYING AT?"
They all looked slightly scared but mainly bewildered.
Admonished and relieved after we'd found them. I immediately called their mother on her mobile but NO BLOODY SIGNAL.
The only thing to do was to go back to the original bench and wait. A few more minutes later, I heard her shouts and saw her bulldozing through the undergrowth. I shouted back, then waved, then watched her face dissolve first into relief and then tears as she realised her babies were safe.
I don't think I've ever seen her so frightened, or angry, as she tore into the three of them, mainly the eldest for wandering off, like Hansel and Gretel following a trail of sweets through the woods.
Child 1 burst into tears and apologised profusely, promised it would never happen again. It didn't take long before we'd all calmed down, but I wanted to ram the message home to my children.
I sat them on a patch of turf and asked them: "Do you know why we're so angry?"
"Because we got lost," said the eldest.
"No," said their mother. "Because we love you so much."
She held my hand tightly, and squeezed, and as we walked home, she asked: "What would we have done, Keith? What would we have done if we had lost them?"
"We'd have blamed ourselves and each other forever," I replied.
Let's put it in context: it was only 45 minutes. Nothing happened.
I'm more than aware that our reactions were hysterical and over-the-top.
Yet rationality and common sense go missing when your children go missing – if only for a short time.