“I don’t want to do it, Mary.”
I could feel her presence towering over me, as solid as lead, and just as cold. I was under her power, and she knew it.
Her whispers coiled around my ears like serpents. “Now. Now. Now.”
I stumbled as she pushed me towards the beautiful little boy who had wandered a few feet away from his mother, a young blonde. He was staring at his shiny boots, red with white laces. His mother had become involved in an animated conversation with a woman of about the same age who was holding a bag-laden buggy.
“Hi James.” I smiled broadly and he looked up at me, returning the smile. A mouthful of little white pearls.
“I love your new boots. Red to match your T-shirt.”
He stretched out his top and looked down at it, then at me.
“Hey, Mummy wants me to show you something. Come on!”
He took my outstretched hand and we ran, giggling as we turned into the cobbled alleyway next to the antique shop.
“I thought you’d be flying.” I glanced again at the motif on his T-shirt. “SuperJames.” He dropped my hand and, together, we swooped towards the park gate with our arms outstretched behind us.
Then Mary stepped in.
She grabbed his hand so roughly that he jerked around to face her. His smile had gone. He looked frightened.
“You silly, silly child. Didn’t your mother ever warn you not to go off with strangers? You need to be punished. Don’t you, James?”
James looked around and whimpered. He nodded slowly.
Was that the correct response?
His eyes shone as they flooded with tears; then he found courage. He twisted his hand and pulled away, but Mary had him shackled.
“Mum-my!” he grizzled. He shut his eyes as the tears spilled.
I took out a tissue, bent down and wiped his nose.
He looked at me, confused.
“It’s OK, darling. Come on. Let’s go to the swings.”
Mary allowed me to gently steer him towards the playground. He continued to cry.
I caught the eye of a mother sitting on a bench while her little girl played on the slide. We exchanged knowing looks and smiled, then she looked down at her phone.
James blubbed the whole time I pushed him, taking little shuddering breaths in between. Then Mary decided to stop the fun. As usual.
She moved to the front of the swing and stood with her legs astride. As the swing came towards her, she grabbed it. It stopped abruptly and James stared at her, clutching the chains in tight little fists.
I sensed she was annoyed. She always is.
Her lips were pulled thin and she glared at him.
“It’s time to go. You’ve been naughty.”
I knew what was coming. If she got him back to the house, well…
She yanked him off the swing and marched him across the grass, holding his arm uncomfortably high. He had become very quiet.
When we got outside the park, Mary turned sharp right, pulling him around with her.
He looked over his shoulder. Where was his mother?
I knew I would have to step in.
Mary wouldn’t like it and would probably go on at me all night, but sometimes I had to be strong and stand up to her.
James seemed to be caught by surprise when, suddenly, I scooped him up, about-turned and ran as fast as I could in the opposite direction. I felt his head bouncing next to my ear and his little boots banged into my thighs. I clutched him tightly; he didn’t hold on to me.
On and on we ran, turning back into the cobbled alleyway and out onto the street next to the antique shop. His mother was still there. Still chatting.
She turned as I approached, and frowned when she saw that I was holding her little boy.
“Is this little one yours?” I asked, placing him gently beside her. “I think he was about to wander off and you can’t be too careful these days. You just don’t know who’s about. I hope you don’t think I’m interfering.”
James grabbed his mother’s legs and looked sideways at me. His face was blotchy.
“Oh, thank you so much,” she said, laying a hand on his blond head. “James, you must stay by Mummy. Always. Say thank you to the lady.”
James remained silent.
“He’s a bit shy. Sorry.”
“Not at all,” I said, winking at him as Mary and I walked away.
“Next time,” she hissed in my ear, “you do as I say.”
I shook my head to get rid of her, but I knew she’d soon be back.
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