By Margaret Morey
Margaret says: I live in Northumberland where I belong to a fun, supportive writing group. I like to try different genres and styles of writing, and draw inspiration from people I meet, walking in the countryside, tending my garden, and travelling.
“Psychopath.” She kind of mutters it under her breath, but I think she wants me to hear. I pretend I haven’t heard, because I don’t know how to react. So I say nothing. That way I won’t cause an argument. His family don’t do arguments. They’ll go to any lengths to avoid confrontation. But his brother’s dear wife, not sharing this gene, cannot resist stirring the cauldron, surreptitiously. When it’s just the two of us, and no-one else is in earshot, that’s her moment to strike.
My son, her nephew, runs ahead of us on the mountain path. He’s brandishing a stick, his makeshift sword, slaying saracens. He tries to engage his cousin by waving the stick near his head. She mutters again, “ . . . always got to be killing something . . . murderer in the making.”
I half-want to say, “Can a six-year-old be a psychopath?” or, “It’s just pretend. He’s a very caring child. Rescues spiders out of the bath and takes them out into the garden.”
But I’ve trained myself in the art of not rising to her bait. So I say nothing.
Her son, my nephew, ignores the brandishing of the sword. Being two years older, he has tired of sticks, and trots along beside us, carrying the mobile phone he got for his recent birthday. He’s measuring the walk.
“I’ve got an app that tells us how far we’ve come.” He looks in my direction to see if I’m impressed with how important he is, now he has his own phone. Then he turns his attention back to his mother.
“We’ve done three miles now . . . how much further is it . . . when are we having our picnic?”
The brothers stride out in front, deep in conversation. This is the way it is on these family days out, which means I always get landed with her.
“Ah, here we are. The top at last.”
“Smashing view! You can see the sea in the distance.”
“We’ve been lucky with the weather . . . you can see for miles.”
“There’s a bank of cloud out towards the sea . . . should be down before it reaches us.”
“Bags I sit here.”
“Who wants a sandwich?”
“Smile everyone. Say cheese.”
Click. The perfect family.
The way down is a scramble. My son is slaying monsters now, with a different stick. This one is bigger, more menacing.
“Watch what you’re doing,” I say, guiding him along where the path drops away steeply on one side.
Is this the best place to bring two small boys? I ask myself. But the men have planned it, and we’re committed.
“ . . . poke somebody’s eyes out,” I hear her mumble.
“Careful . . . ” I reinforce her concerns, ignore the hostility.
She and my nephew are ahead of us. I can hear his high-pitched chatter, “Getting on my nerves . . . always wanting to be a knight . . . he doesn’t have a phone . . . ’cos he’s not eight like me . . .”
I strain to hear her answer. “ . . . blinking psychopath . . . being eight won’t make any difference . . . doubt he’ll grow out of it.. ”
We catch up in time for me to see her sniff and tweak his scarf, pat his shoulder, a sort of laying on of hands which puts her seal of approval on her perfect child. Does an eight-year-old understand what a psychopath is, I wonder. And is it a good idea to tell your child that his cousin is a potential murderer?
The sun goes, like someone has switched the light off. A bank of cloud has massed ahead of us. A change in the weather is forecast, but we should be down before then.
“For goodness sake throw that stick away. You’re holding us all up.”
My son ignores his aunt and makes some more swashbuckling noises. I feel a perverse satisfaction that he’s taken no notice of her. My nephew clicks his tongue in annoyance, like a miniature adult. The two of them have got between the two of us on the path. Wisps of mist have come out of nowhere and are swirling in front of us. I want to be next to my son, to help him down, but I’m side-lined, left to bring up the rear. The murmur of the men’s voices rumbles down below.
“Come on, chop-chop.”
She hustles my son along the path, increasingly irritated by his stick fantasies. The mist is getting thicker and wetter. It feels as though it’s raining. She stops briefly to put up her hood, pull the waterproof cover over her rucksack, and in that time my nephew has scrambled past her. The two boys are ahead and I can’t see them, partly because of the mist and partly because the path is full of twists and turns. I’m worried that there could be a cliff edge ahead. This isn’t family-friendly any more. I should never have agreed to it. I daren’t squeeze past her. I can imagine a sheer drop below me. I try to delete the idea from my mind. Click. But it’s still there. And I can’t hang behind any longer.
“Can I get past?”
She presses herself into the hillside. It’s like overtaking on a hairpin bend. The visibility is getting worse. Through the mist I can make out a shape. I think it’s my nephew. It’s definitely his voice.
In the absence of his mother, he’s the adult, his cousin the naughty child who needs to be kept in order.
Then, through the gloom comes a rattling of stones, followed by a long silence, before a wail goes up. That’s my son. Has he fallen? Is he hurt? Does he have a grazed knee or is he about to tumble to his death?
My nephew is straight out with it. He’s not looking at me. He’s studiously killing aliens on his phone. My son is on his knees at the edge of the path, clinging on to a bush which has broken his fall. His small body shakes with big sobs. He’s overcome by the shock of it all.
“You should have been watching where you were going, instead of playing with that stick,” says my always-right sister-in-law.
I sit on a boulder, lift him onto my lap, and roll up his trouser legs to examine his knees. One is red and grazed, but it will be alright until we get down. The sobs are getting less. He lifts a face, wet and red with tears, from my chest.
“He pushed me.”
I smooth his hair and fasten his jacket.
“Yes, he said he was going to call for help . . . on his phone . . . said they might come and find my dead body.”
“I did not,” says my nephew. “That’s a lie.”
He’s still focussed on his phone.
“That was very sensible to think of getting help,” says his mother. “But sometimes people don’t understand when you try to help them.”
It’s hard to tell through the thick mist how far the hillside drops away, but it makes me shiver. I take my son’s hand.
“Never mind. We’ll go down together. Hold on to me.”
My nephew and sister-in-law are behind us. No-one speaks.
At the bottom, we come out of the mist. The men are waiting by the cars.
“Ah, here they come.”
“Who wants a drink and a biscuit?”
“Quite a change in the weather now.”
My son stands beside his father, looking up.
“He pushed me over.”
“We’re all down safely. That’s the main thing.”
“I could have used my phone to get help.”
“I’ll get a plaster for your knee. Good job that bush stopped you falling over the edge.”
“Could I have died if I’d fallen down the mountain?”
I don’t want to trivialise the incident. Neither do I want to frighten him.
“ . . . hard to see how far it was . . . probably not . . . might have broken a leg or something . . . ”
“Time to head home.”
“It’s been a great day.”
“Must meet up again soon.”
“Perhaps a valley walk next time.”
Their car pulls away. It’s a silver evening, with the sun glimmering between the clouds.
“Going to be nice for the drive home,” says my husband.
We follow their car out of the car park. Brother-in-law is waving, sister-in-law is looking for something in her handbag, nephew is on the back seat, probably still killing aliens.