It isS an image that will stay with me until my last breath. A flash of blue sandals and yellow socks, me shouting "NO!" and making a desperate lunge, and my wife Jane screaming "Oh my God!" as our two-year-old son Jacob fell headlong out of an open window 40ft up. By some miracle he survived relatively unscathed. Young children and drunks do survive these things, because they don't stiffen up. But mentally Jane and I will carry the scars for a long, long time.
Until that dreadful Sunday lunchtime three weeks ago, our holiday on Spain's Costa de la Luz was going well. The weather was glorious, the sea almost warm. And yet it was doubtless because we were on holiday that we relaxed our usual vigilance. Dangerous heights are normally one of my parental neuroses, indeed I had scrupulously moved a chair well away from the balustrade on our hotel balcony.
But in the El Pirate restaurant overlooking Cape Trafalgar, the open window did not ring any alarm bells. Jakey insisted on sitting at the end of the table nearest the window, and we let him. To refuse would only have caused a scene, and besides, hadn't we just that morning seen a toddler standing on the front of a motor-scooter driven by his father, neither of them wearing a helmet? The Spanish treat their children as mini-adults and it is easy to get sucked into a similar mentality. It's tapas until midnight for Spanish kids. Not for them a plate of dinosaur-shaped chicken nuggets and early to bed.
But we blame ourselves, not Spanish culture, for Jakey's dramatic plunge. In fact, our opinion of Spain, already high, shot up a hundredfold when, little more than five minutes after the accident, an ambulance arrived with a paediatrician on board. In Cadiz, 40-odd miles away, such a response would still have been impressive. But in this little scrap of a village it was nigh on remarkable.
When the paediatrician's remarks – "I can hardly believe I'm saying this, but he seems to be OK" – had been translated for us, and the shock had started to subside, we asked ourselves what might have happened in a British seaside resort? Even if the emergency services had arrived that quickly, highly unlikely on a remote stretch of coast like Cape Trafalgar, a health service starved of cash and manpower could never have got its act together sufficiently to send along a paediatrician.
Moreover, when later that day I asked the hotel receptionist to direct me to the nearest pharmacy, she did not have to scour the local newspaper for details of Sunday opening times. The pharmacy, a gleaming establishment with English-speaking staff and a rather beautiful tiled counter, was a five-minute walk away. Of course it was open. And yes, they had infant paracetamol. Yes, they had it in suppository form in case he spat out the medicine. I was lost in admiration. I still am.
Jacob's injuries have now nearly healed. He sustained a slight cut behind his right ear and badly grazed his right side, which caused him discomfort; yet by the Tuesday he was back in the hotel pool, his usual cheerful if alarmingly fearless self. We'll never know exactly what happened at El Pirate. He must have moved his chair back, stood up and peered out, overbalancing before I could reach him. Jane and I have berated ourselves for careless parenting, but our friends have been wonderfully supportive, describing all sorts of incidents involving their own kids, in which tragedies were narrowly averted by luck rather than design. Even my mother recalled an incident she had long suppressed, in which I, as a toddler, crawled out of a window onto a parapet over the Kardomah cafe on Kensington High Street. Evidently Jacob is lucky to be alive in more ways than one.
But such are the tortures of parenthood, and it remains my view that giving children too little independence is just as irresponsible as giving them too much. Nevertheless, the stark fact remains that we let our youngest child fall out of a high window, words I never expected to write.
On the way down he must have glanced off the side of the building, which changed his headfirst trajectory. At the bottom, he bounced off a rocky ledge onto the beach, but aghast, we did not stop to look out. We hurtled down a flight of stone steps to the beach – the longest 20 seconds I have ever endured – with terrible thoughts flashing through our minds. That we would find him dead. But this was lovely, funny, characterful Jakey, so how could he be? There was already a crowd around him when we got to the bottom of the steps, and – blessed relief – he was crying. We were twice asked whether we wished to make a formal complaint against the restaurant, and I expect that in a more litigious society, especially America, we could have made millions. But how can you sue when something is your fault? Or is that being naive?
Whatever, in the ensuing tearful bout of self-recrimination we realised one dreadful thing. That if the worst had happened, the presence of our two other children would have provided little or no consolation. That the only one we wanted would have been the one not there. A friend whose brother died young confirmed that this is how her mother feels to this day. Meanwhile, as I write this I can hear Jacob having a tantrum. It is music to my ears.