Barbara had to save money all year round so her son could have a good holiday. This meant going with him for two weeks somewhere abroad and sending him to a school camp abroad for another two weeks. The rest of the summer vacation Adam spent on short trips in Poland with Barbara or his grandmother. This year, however, Barbara waited too long for a good deal to Spain or Croatia and, in the end, there were no good deals—even for Bulgaria—so she decided to take Adam to Sopot at the Baltic Coast, where they were before, but only on a short excursion.

They arrived in Sopot with no problems, but Adam wasn’t happy about their hotel room, which was small and didn’t have a sea view but overlooked the bins at the back of the hotel, A much greater disappointment, however, came the next morning, when they went to the beach only to discover that swimming was forbidden due to the high level of algae. They went to the lifeguards to find out when the sea would be open again for swimming, and learnt that for this to happen, the temperature would have to go down at least five degrees and there would have to be strong wind to wash away the algae. This, most likely, wouldn’t happen in the next four to five days. The information gleaned from the internet was even more pessimistic. The beach hygiene inspector, interviewed by the local newspaper, predicted that the Gdansk Bay wouldn’t be swimmable this summer at all. This was inevitably used as a reason to demand more resources from the central government to clean up the beach.

“What’s the point of going to the seaside if you can’t swim?” asked Adam rhetorically.

“Yes, what’s the point,” agreed Barbara.

She went to the hotel reception to enquire about the nearest place open to swimmers.

“Władysławowo,” said the receptionist.

“How far is Władysławowo?” asked Barbara.

“Two and a half hours by train, if you are lucky,” he replied with the aura of an Yorkshireman from the famous Monty Python sketch. “It would probably be faster to fly to Riga, where there’s no algae—as far as I am aware—if you want to swim in the Baltic Sea.”

“So what you suggest we do?” asked Barbara.

“There is plenty to do in Sopot: several nightclubs, the summer market, poetry and jazz festivals. A small beer festival will open in Gdynia next week.”

There was no point in saying that all these attractions would not appeal to her twelve-year old son, so she thanked the receptionist, returned to their room and said to Adam: “Let’s go to Władysławowo. That is the nearest place where we can swim in the sea.”

“Okay,” said Adam.

They packed quickly and took a taxi to the station in order not to miss the train which was leaving in less than half an hour.

The train was old-fashioned and very slow, stopping at every village they were passing, which made Adam grumble.

“It will be nighttime by the time we arrive in Władysławowo. When we are going to swim?” he asked accusingly.

“I’m trying my best,” said Barbara. “Try to read. Your Polish teacher complains that you are not reading anything. Now you have an opportunity to prove her wrong.”

“The books you buy me are boring,” Adam said.

“So buy those which you like,” replied Barbara. “If you want, tomorrow we can go to Gdansk and do a tour of the bookshops. Apparently, Gdansk is great for second-hand bookshops.”

Barbara couldn’t focus on her book either and the train was getting on her nerves too. She couldn’t believe that trains could be so slow in the twenty-first century.

But eventually they arrived. The town turned out to be quite large and it took them fifteen minutes or so to get to the beach. The beach was very long, very wide, and packed with people. Most of them surrounded themselves with folded screens. This must have been a particularly Polish custom, as Barbara never saw them in other countries. Some people joined two or three screens, grabbing for themselves a large piece of the beach. Others sat in enormous wicker chairs. These contraptions left little space for new arrivals and obscured the view.

Adam looked at his mother with his eyes wide open and mouth compressed. Barbara knew what it meant: he wasn’t happy with the place, but he wasn’t going to complain.

After walking for a couple of minutes, they found a place next to a water sports rental. It was a bright yellow shack, which could be seen from far away.

“In case you get lost or whatever, remember that we are here, near this yellow shack,” she said to Adam.

They put their towels down next to a nice-looking and screen-free family with two kids, who promised to look after their stuff when they went swimming. Barbara took out from her bag a sandwich with cheese, made at breakfast, and asked Adam if he wanted to eat it, but he looked at it with scorn. He didn’t like home-prepared food and, especially, he didn’t like to carry it and others to see that they are the sort of people who made their own sandwiches. .

Then they went to swim, as it was already well after three o’clock. The water was cooler than on the Costa Del Sol, where they were the previous year, but this was to be expected from the Baltic Sea. The advantage was that nobody was whistling at them when they were swimming. They were both good swimmers, so they liked to swim further, leaving the crowd of waders behind. On the way back, Adam stayed in shallow water for a long time, with his head in the water and legs doing scissors in the air. He started doing it when he was four or five years old and it became his holiday signature.

Eventually, there was time to go out and find something to eat. Barbara led them through the tight forest of beach chairs and screens and when she reached their towels, she noticed that Adam wasn’t following her. How could it be? She quickly retraced her steps, returning to the place where they left the water. Some kids playing with inflatables that she noticed before were still there. She asked them if they’d seen Adam and one had, but he hadn’t paid attention to where he went. She walked up and down the beach, looking at boys in red swimming trunks and there was one some distance away, but it wasn’t Adam. He must have returned to their place. But he wasn’t there either.

“What shall I do?” asked Barbara to the family who was looking after their belongings.

“Go to the lifeguard,” said the father. “He has binoculars and would see any child swimming on his own.”

Barbara put her dress on quickly and ran to the lifeguard’s “nest” which was pretty far away. But there was no lifeguard there; his working hours were 8 a.m. to 4.p.m. and it was already after four.

“My son is lost. What should I do?” asked Barbara, partly to herself, partly to the people who were standing nearby.

“Go to the police,” one man said.

“Where is the police station?” asked Barbara.

“It must be somewhere in the centre,” he said, looking at his Google Maps. “Here,” he said, showing her.

Barbara returned to her towels, took her bag and ran. The family asked her for her phone number, so they could phone her in case Adam returned.

It took Barbara some time to explain at the station what had happened, but once the information was taken down, the police acted swiftly. They mobilised all forces available in the twenty-kilometre radius. Suddenly, there were plenty of men in uniforms on the beach and police cars were passing in all directions.

“If we don’t find him in the next hour or so, we will use a helicopter,” said the officer in charge.

Fifteen minutes had passed and Adam was found. He was sitting in a café at the other side of the beach, drinking orange juice and waiting to be found.

“How have you ended up here?” asked Barbara. “Why didn’t you follow me when we were returning to our spot on the beach?”

“I followed you, but you were walking so fast that I wasn’t able to keep up and when I shouted to you to slow down, you ignored me,” said Adam. “So I returned to the sea and walked on the shore to the end of the beach, thinking that you would find me on one end of the beach or the other.”

“But this was the wrong end of the beach,” said Barbara,

“I know that now,” said Adam.

“I told you to look for a yellow shack in case you get lost.”

“I don’t remember you saying it,” said Adam.

There was no point in continuing this discussion, especially as the police officer asked them to go to the station as he needed to write a report. Barbara noticed that the guy was good-looking, or rather it occurred to her that she would notice it, if not for the fact that such an observation was completely irrelevant.

At the station, he turned to Adam and said: “Can you go to the other room, please, with this lady. I need to talk to your mum on my own.”

When Adam left, the policeman said: “It is great news that your son was found. Now, however, we need to follow due procedures. According to the law, you committed an act of a serious neglect of a child.”

“I haven’t neglected him, he got lost,” protested Barbara.

“That is how you see it and how you can present the matter in the court.”

“What will happen to me?” she asked.

“In the best case, you get a social worker overseeing the child’s situation at home for some time, to make sure nothing like that happens again. In the worst case, you lose, hopefully temporarily, your parental rights. And you will have to cover the costs of using the resources of the police, which amounted to eight police cars and thirty people.”

“So, if there was a helicopter, I will have to pay for a helicopter?” asked Barbara with a hint of sarcasm.

“I’m afraid so,” said the officer.

“I thought the police is here to help citizens, not to extract money from them. Pity you didn’t tell me all these things in advance so maybe I would look for my son by myself. Would have been cheaper,” she continued, suppressing tears.

“Perhaps. But what would happen if you didn’t find him ‘til the evening or tomorrow?” he asked. And added after a while: “We will also need to inform Adam’s father. Can you provide me with his name, address and telephone number?”

“Adam has no father. I’m raising him on my own.”

For some reason, by this point the tears started to fall down her cheeks. This made Barbara angry, as it looked as if she was sorry about being a single mother.

The policeman looked at her for a while, and then at his computer, where he was checking something for a couple of minutes. Barbara thought that he would say something to add to her humiliation, but instead he got up, put his hand on her shoulder and said: “Okay. I get it. You think life is unfair and all men are bastards. You are right, but sometimes there are exceptions to the rule. You can leave now and there will be no charges. And you are lucky that we didn’t call a helicopter because its costs would be more difficult to erase.”

Then they went to the room, where Adam was sitting with a policewoman watching something on YouTube. He turned to her: “The case is closed. Adam, you can leave now with your mum. Next time when you go on the beach, bring a skipping rope and when you go somewhere, keep one end and give the other to your mum.”

“Thank you,” said Barbara, holding Adam’s hand.

When they left the police station, Barbara realised that she had cramps in her stomach. If she was so hungry, how hungry Adam must had been? But it was difficult to find a restaurant which would suit them. Eventually, they settled for a huge, barn-like place with open gates and large wooden benches. It was darkish, played loud music, and had the anonymity of a motel, which suited them, as they didn’t want anybody to pay attention to them.

Adam ordered a large pizza and Coca-Cola and Barbara got herself a roll with some salads and a small beer. Despite the hunger, she couldn’t eat much, but the beer made her feel better or at least woke her up from the shock in which she’d been since Adam’s vanishing. She started to notice people around her. There were many families with children, some bikers in leather jackets and ridiculous hairstyles and teenage girls playing on their mobile phones. Most of them were eating pizzas, leaving the crusty bits on their plates. This was also the way Adam was eating his pizza. Barbara couldn’t understand such wastefulness. She put her roll in a plastic bag and slipped it into her handbag and ate the remnants off Adam’s plate.

“As your grandma said, capitalism corrupted Poles. Before the war, they would collect every crumb of bread from the floor, and kissed it before eating it,” she said.

“How could granny know how people ate their pizza before the war if she was born after the war?”

“Maybe she read it in the books. The point is that people should eat everything what they order,” said Barbara. ‘Otherwise food is wasted, animals are killed, and tropical forests  are cut down in vain.”

“Just because of some pizza crust being uneaten?” asked Adam.

“That’s right. Precisely.”

There was no more food to be eaten and it was time to catch the last train to Sopot. At the station it turned out that the train was a bit delayed, so Barbara agreed to go to a kiosk nearby selling waffles with different toppings and she bought Adam a waffle with whipped cream and strawberry jam. She asked him to carry it properly so he wouldn’t make a mess of it. But when they were taking their seats on the train, Adam lost control of the waffle. It made a pirouette in the air and pieces of it landed on Adam’s clothes, Barbara’s, a woman sitting next to Adam, the chairs, and the floor. It seemed like everything around them was covered in red and white grease, like in a Laurel and Hardy film or some other slapstick comedy. Barbara, however, wasn’t in a mood for laughing. She abruptly took the remnants of the waffle from his hand, threw it into a bin and started to shout:

“Why did you ask me to buy you a waffle if you don’t know how to eat it? Why couldn’t you keep the waffle firmly in your hand as I told you? Why do you always ignore what I tell you?”

She was hitting a small folded table located between them with her fist, which made Adam jump in his seat. She knew they looked ridiculous, like an exotic band trying to produce rhythm using nonstandard instruments, but she couldn’t stop, even though Adam was crying and meekly pleading: “Mum, please, stop, people are looking at us.”

“I don’t care about people,” shouted Barbara, hitting the table for the last time as she broke it.

The middle-aged woman who sat next to Adam said to Barbara: “You shouldn’t talk to your son like that. He is only a child.”

An older man, standing next to their seat, joined in the conversation, saying to Barbara: “You are mentally unstable. People like you shouldn’t be allowed to look after children. He would be better off with foster parents or in an orphanage.”

“Yes, yes,” added a small choir of mostly female voices.

But then a man sitting in a parallel row said to Barbara’s critics: “Leave the poor woman in peace. I saw her earlier. Her son got lost on the beach today. There was police looking for him. She’s had enough stresses for one day.”

“Perhaps the kid didn’t get lost, but ran away from such a wicked mother,” one  woman replied.

Barbara felt too ashamed and humiliated to talk back. Despite the train being overcrowded, they left the carriage and went to the other end of the train, where, after two stops, they found two free seats near the window. It seemed like nobody there knew them, but in order not to be recognised, they spent the rest of the journey looking at the landscape which they were passing, although shortly there was no landscape to look at, only darkness, as if the world wanted them to face each other.

When they arrived at their hotel. it was almost midnight, but they couldn’t fall asleep. Each was crying in their bed, without uttering a word. Only after an hour or so Adam said: “Mum, do you love me? Do you regret that I was born?”

It was some time ‘til Barbara replied, as tears and phlegm in her throat suffocated her and made her temporarily mute. Eventually, when she overcame it, she said:

“I love you. I don’t regret that you were born. You are everything I have. I just wish you stopped daydreaming and were more present in this world. I could have lost you twice today. You could have been kidnapped by some pedophile or the police might have recommended that I was not fit to look after you and the social services might have taken you from me. Such things happen. You can read in newspapers about mothers who lose their kids because they were poor or were caught drunk or something.”

“But you are not poor or a drunkard.”

“If I lose my job, we become poor. Life is not so easy for me. Maybe it is time you realise it rather than criticising everything I do.”

“I don’t criticise everything.”

“Not everything, but a lot.”

“I’m sorry. Can I come to your bed now?”

“Of course you can.”

In the morning, Barbara looked at the flights from Gdansk and there was one super-offer to Venice leaving in the afternoon; it was about €200 round-trip for both of them. She booked it immediately, together with a hotel. Then she woke Adam up and said: “We are going to Italy today. There is plenty of sea there, so if there are algae somewhere or if we don’t like one place, we can go to another one.”

After a short discussion, the hotel manager agreed to refund half of their cost. They packed their luggage and went to the airport. Several hours later, they arrived in the hotel with a view of the canal and a row of colourful houses. They left their luggage and went for a walk:

“Mum, this is the most beautiful place I’ve ever seen,” said Adam.

“Yes, I think nothing on Earth is more beautiful than Venice. At least nothing human-made. Strange that centuries have passed since Venice was built, but nothing better was built in the meantime,” she replied.

She thought that she also wouldn’t exceed the best moments of her life. Things would only get worse, for humanity and for her. Success would mean avoiding disaster, not reaching some peak. Heaven had a ceiling; hell was bottomless. But she didn’t want to talk about it with Adam.

“Let’s go for a pizza. There is no better place to have pizza than Italy,” she said instead. “Tomorrow we will go to a beach where I was on my first trip to Venice fifteen years ago. Maybe we will have a good holiday, after all.”