As Nathan hurried to pack his son's lunchbox — sandwiches, crisps, an apple included more in hope than expectation — he fought back pangs of sorrow for the other lunchbox, the Flower Fairies box he'd never pack again. Forget Jenny, he told himself. She was never my daughter.
This story was born at my mother's annual summer garden party. In the sunshine, among the conversation and laughter, small children scampered happily around. It was a picture-book vision of family life. And because I'm a writer — with a sliver of ice in my heart — I thought, What if one of these children died?
How does it feel to suffer the loss of a child?
Not all children's deaths are equal. When a child is murdered, there is a national outcry. When a child is run over by a car, newspapers might run a few paragraphs on an inside page.
Here in the UK — I don't know what it's like elsewhere, but I'd guess it's similar — the newspapers are constantly whipping up panics about predatory paedophiles, demanding harsher laws and more punitive measures. This is despite the fact that child murders are very rare, and most of those are committed by family members. The chance of a child being murdered by a stranger, by a sexual deviant, is extremely small. Still, newspapers are outraged whenever it happens.
Conversely, children die on the roads all the time. You might think that if more children are dying, this would create even more outrage. You would be wrong. Newspapers are full of columnists raging against speed cameras and speed limits, saying that motorists should be free to drive faster and kill more children. Well, they don't say that last part, but it's an inevitable consequence.
I'm appalled at the hypocrisy of newspapers promulgating anti-paedophile hysteria, while simultaneously campaigning against speed limits and safe driving. The mortality statistics show that motorists are a far bigger threat to children. There isn't a massive army of perverts going on the rampage, but there certainly is a horde of drunken speeding motorists mowing down children every week.
My original vision for "This Is How It Feels" included some hard-hitting satire along these lines, featuring scumbag journalists whipping up outrage regardless of the facts. However, comedy and satire are extremely difficult to sell in the current short-story market, and therefore I decided to downplay the overtly satirical angle.
Instead I concentrated upon the raw emotion of how it feels when a child dies. I asked myself how those feelings might be manipulated in other ways than by journalism, and what goals might be achieved.