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90 minutes missing A parent's worst nightmare (with a happy ending)

Those moments of drama in a family’s life that can change your perspective forever.

Aidan Comerford and his wife Martha have struggled through challenges that many young Irish couples can relate to – redundancy, mortgage problems, post-natal depression and the diagnosis of their two daughters, Sophie and Ailbhe, with autism.

Aidan, the 2014 winner of So You Think You’re Funny? at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, has written his first book about the journey they have been on and what happens when reality doesn’t quite meet your dreams – carry on and try to find the bright side.

This extract from Cornflakes for Dinner recalls how the winning of the award paled into insignificance when he returned from Edinburgh to hear the drama of what happened while his wife and daughters were back in Ireland.

[Sheila and Brendan are Aidan's parents-in-law]

IT WAS A pleasant summer morning in Gowna. The door of the house was open. Sophie was eating a mouthful of breakfast, running across to have a go on the swings at the front of the house and running back to eat another mouthful. That was her circuit for the morning.

Martha was sitting at the table; Ailbhe was on the couch. Sheila was in the extra cabin, asleep, and Brendan was milling around outside, enjoying the fresh country air and collecting firewood.

Then Martha realised that she hadn’t seen Sophie for a couple of minutes, so she looked out at the swing. No Soph. The previous day Sophie had hidden in the wardrobe in the bedroom, so Martha checked there first. No Soph. Then she checked the kitchen. No Soph. She briskly walked outside and went around the house. No Soph.

‘Dad, have you seen Sophie?’ she asked.

He called over, ‘No, why?’

‘I haven’t got eyeballs on her.’

They searched in the grove of trees beside the house. Martha began to panic. She stumble through some brambles, and ripped strips of skin off the back of her leg. Still, no Soph.

They shouted to Sheila in the cabin to get up, so she could stay at the house in case Sophie came back. ‘We’re going to see if she’s gone down to the lake,’ Brendan called. When they got into the field, there was a clear view of the path to the lake, but no Soph. They ran down expecting to see her at the shoreline. No Soph. No Soph. Jesus! No Soph. Martha’s heart was thumping so loudly, she suspected that I might be able to hear it in Scotland.

She didn’t come running. No Soph.

Martha called Sophie’s name at first, but then she figured that there was a better chance of her responding to ‘Popcorn!’ Sophie always answered to that. But, she didn’t come running. No Soph.

There is a field behind the house that also has a path that leads down the lake, so Martha went back up that way, while her dad went the usual route. No Soph, either way. When they got back to the house, Sheila decided that she would go and search as well, so they told Ailbhe to stay there in case Sophie came back. ‘Okay,’ said Ailbhe, not stirring, seemingly unbothered by the situation.

Martha searched the surrounding fields. No Soph. Brendan went back down to the lake. No Soph. Sheila had awful memories of when Martha was a toddler in the back garden in Swords when she fell into a bin full of water, headfirst! Sheila had found her minutes later, with her chubby little baby legs sticking out of the bin, unresponsive. At the time, there was no phone in the house, so she ran out to the street with Martha in her arms, screaming for help.

The neighbours called an ambulance, and Martha survived. (There are photos of her with her head shaved on one side: ‘I was such a chubby baby they couldn’t find a vein in my arm,’ she explained to me when I first saw it.)

So Sheila went straight for the nearby farms to check the slurry pits. Please don’t let her be there, she thought.

Martha went down to the lake one more time. No Soph. It was as if in a split second on that morning it had suddenly become a Soph-less universe.

It had been an hour and a half since they had seen her. ‘She would have come back by now,’ Martha reasoned. She’s dead, she thought. No Soph, for ever.

Martha has a cousin who stays across the lake, and she called him to ask what she should do next. ‘Should I contact Search and Rescue?’ she asked.

‘She’s here!’

‘I’ll be over in a few minutes,’ he said, and he jumped into his motorboat and started to make his way across the lake. Martha walked back up to the house, scanning desperately for a flash of red hair, but there was no Soph to be seen. She walked back up the lane with the phone in her hand. She was going to have to call me in Edinburgh. She wondered how she was going to tell me that Sophie was gone, probably dead. I would have spent the afternoon crying in the airport, frantically looking for flights home. As Martha approached the house, Ailbhe called out: ‘She’s here!’

Martha sprinted for the house, and when she rounded the corner of the door, standing in the middle of the room, mucked up to her chest, with no boots on … Soph! Martha picked her up, and held her, relieved, angry and terrified all at once.

We still have no idea where she went during that time, and the boots have never been found.

Cornflakes for Dinner by Aidan Comerford is published by Gill Books, priced €14.99

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