PROD-The-Child-In-TimeBBC 1 have recently broadcast a production of the play based on Ian McEwen’s ‘The Child in Time’ with Benedict Cumberbatch in the leading role. It was not an easy viewing. There can be few people, who could not identify with the panic of losing a toddler in the supermarket. One minute, Kate is there and playing happily, then she just disappears. Stephen runs round the store calling her name, he asks everybody, ‘have you seen a little girl in a yellow coat’. Nobody has. Then he has to go home and tell his wife, Julie, what has happened. She is angry, distraught. She blames him. They are incapable of comforting each other.

How can a marriage survive something like this? She moves out and lives by herself in Shingle Street on the Suffolk coast. He carries on; always looking for his daughter, never giving up hope. On one occasion, he visits Julie and on the way home calls at The Bell Inn. Looking through a window, he sees a young woman he recognises and smiles at him. She smiles back. When he tells his mother about it, she says, ‘Yes, I was there thirty years ago and so were you. I had just discovered I was pregnant with you’.

Stephen writes childrens’ books and, sponsored by his publisher and close friend, Charles, he sits on government committees discussing childrens’ literacy.  In a strange, somewhat disjointed development, Charles goes mad. He gives up his job, moves to the country and reverts to being a little boy, playing in the woods, climbing trees, building dens, only returning home when his wife rings the bell for mealtimes. Stephen tries to understand him, but ultimately loses patience. Confronted with the inanity of his behaviour, Charles cannot hold it all together and hangs himself in the woods.

Later, after Charles’ funeral, Stephen is at home asleep. He has unwrapped an intercom system and left one phone on Kate’s bed and taken the other to bed with him. He is awakened by Kate’s voice telling him that she is with mummy. The the phone rings to say that Julie is in labour.  He arrives in the hospital just in time for the birth of his baby boy. it feels as if this will heal all their pain.

McEwen writes harrowing psychological novels. At one level, we identify with the plight of this young couple. The book came out twenty years before Madeleine McCann went missing in Spain. Unless the author is a psychic, he could not known how much that   very public abduction gripped the nation for many weeks and months.  Madeleine McCann is still frozen in time.  She has never been found.

How heartbreaking to lose a child. Even if you find them years later, they are no longer the same person. A missing child never grows up.  Such extreme grief is a form of madness. Stephen catches glimpses of Kate; he hears her voice. Once, he is so convinced that he has seen his daughter that he goes into a school and kneels by the desk of a little girl who looks like her, only to be kindly convinced that there is no way she is Kate.

Maybe McEwen is playing with the idea of reality and madness. Did the child ever exist except in Stephen’s imagination? Did he and Julie both want a baby so much that his mind hallucinated Kate and her devastating disappearance?   Is that why the police were not more involved and why nobody in the store remembered seeing Kate?  Did Stephen really have a flashback of seeing his mother through the window of The Bell Inn?

Was Charles’ attempt to recapture his lost childhood in the woods a literary device, a metaphor for recapturing a lost or absent childhood. Stephen is, after all, a writer of children’s fiction. It’s his stock in trade? But why was the prime minister involved and the Child Education Committee? Was that also a device to underscore the emotional significance of childhood, so often ignored by tests and grades devised by educationalists?

We might suspect all of those, but the author cannot possibly comment.  McEwen’s skill as a writer lies in stimulating his readers’ imagination, not in providing the right answers.