They did not usually cycle that far. Jonny and Matt liked to keep to the familiar routes near their bungalow (this was what their mother requested, anyway) but today they both seemed to have agreed to cycle further away from home without even having discussed it. This bond that the brothers had bemused others. Their intuitive understanding of each other could make others easily feel excluded. Maybe their foray was a way of escaping the atmosphere at home where their mother, still grieving for her mother, seemed constantly sad.
So today they cycled higher up the Pembrokeshire pathways that led along the cliff edge where, down beneath them, the sea shrank lower and smaller the higher they climbed, like water being drained from a glass. As they cycled, their cheeks red now and their puffing more audible, the water glistened and blinked in the sharp sunlight.
When they grew tired, they stopped and lent their bikes against a grassy verge. The wheels spun for a few seconds before slowing to a halt. The brothers took out their water bottles and the sandwiches made and packaged by their mother. They had hoped for cheese and pickle and they were not disappointed. They unwrapped the greaseproof paper packages and ate without talking, looking down the gorse-covered cliffs to the bay where a few lone boats sailed slowly past.
Refreshed, they mounted their bikes again and cycled off. They knew the area well enough not to worry about being lost, even though it was not their usual territory. Here the terrain was wilder than at home. Where they lived, neighbours kept their lawns trim around their small homes and their mother was more house proud than most. Maybe it was to do with being a single parent. She knew she had to do better than others in order to evade criticism. Everyone in the area knew that Bob had left her. So her curtains needed to be smarter; her windows more polished. She had done her best to bring up her sons to be good and well-behaved. When others said what great boys they were, her heart swelled with pride. She knew that her ex-husband was missing out.
Willow herb and cow parsley grew tall and knotted amid the grassy cliffs and swallows circled the sky in a frenzied way. The ground was bumpy and uneven. The sea was a mere pond from up here and the beach had almost vanished from view, just a thin yellow rim around the rocks. There were a few houses dotted around, white cottages and bungalows rather like their home.
It was almost silent now. There was a slight breeze and the boys found that their cycling had slowed down.
But then they heard sounds. There were raised voices, shouting. Both boys stopped their bikes and paused, still straddled, and listened.
‘We’ve told you over and over again not to use our pathway,’ said a woman’s voice.
‘Yet you still insist,’ said a man angrily.
‘Because I am allowed to,’ said a weaker female voice. ‘I have checked with the Highways Agency and it is a right of way. I like to come here and pick blackberries,’ (she lifted her basket as evidence) ‘and look at the sea and I am entitled to do so,’ she continued.
Jonny and Matt moved their bikes a little so that they could see. Down a grassy track stood a bulky man and woman on one side of a fence and a smaller older woman in front of them.
‘Are you thick or just mad?’ asked the man. His voice had a nasty roughness to it.
‘Neither,’ said the smaller woman as if she were trying to be brave but the boys could hear a quiver in her voice. None of them seemed to have noticed the two boys, so engrossed were they in their dispute.
‘Then get off our bloody path,’ shouted the larger woman. ‘Stupid cow.’
‘No, I shan’t,’ said the smaller. ‘You can’t make me.’
‘Can’t I?’ said the man and the boys saw him swing his arm back like an arrow in a bow and swipe the small woman. She fell instantly to the ground, like a squatted fly.
Without hesitation, Jonny and Matt dropped their bikes and their spinning wheels and ran over to the old woman. She was lying on her side on the grassy ground. There was blood coming from her forehead where she had hit a stone. The blackberries from her basket had tumbled onto the path. The red blood and purple juices mingled with each other.
‘Are you alright?’ said Jonny, putting his hand gently on the old lady’s arm.
‘I think so,’ she said, touching her forehead and looking at the blood moist on her fingers. ‘Just a bit dazed.’
‘We saw them,’ said Matt. ‘We saw that man push you,’ but when he turned to look at them, the couple had gone.
‘Would you be witnesses for me?’ said the old lady.
‘Definitely,’ said Jonny, his heart beating with a mixture of excitement and fear. He had never been part of a crime investigation before.
‘Do you live nearby?’ Matt.
The lady pointed. ‘Yes, that’s my cottage.’
‘Let’s get you home then,’ said Jonny.
They left their bikes where they were and helped her, one boy on each side. They led her slowly home, worried about moving her too quickly. She invited them into her cottage. Inside it was just like their Nan’s house used to be: lacy cloths over dark settees; china ladies frozen in frilly dresses; cut glass in a cabinet; a gas fire with artificial coals; a calendar of garden birds on the wall.
She – Mrs Turner she was called – insisted on giving them each a glass of squash and a biscuit and she had sweet tea. She sat in her comfy armchair and pressed a hanky on her head to stem the flow. Jonny thought she should see a doctor but she said there was no need.
The boys wrote down their address for her.
‘Oh, you live in one of the bungalows near the station, do you?’ she said.
‘Yeah,’ said Matt. ‘With our mum.’
‘Well, I bet she’s proud of you two,’ said Mrs Turner.
‘Maybe you shouldn’t go up that path again,’ said Matt. ‘You might get badly hurt next time, Mrs Turner.’
‘What? And let those horrible people bully me? No way. Anyway, I’m going to speak to a solicitor and make a formal complaint about them.’
Back in the bungalow their mum was sitting on the sofa with Brian.
‘When d’you think we should tell the boys, Suze?’ asked Brian.
‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘It’s just always been the three of us since their dad left and I can’t seem to, can’t bring myself to.’
‘How d’you think that makes me feel? That you’re ashamed of me?’
‘No, not at all. It’s just not the right time. What with their Nan dying and all that. They’re too upset at the moment.’
‘It’s never the right time, Suze. That’s the problem. The boys and me, we’ll get on really well. I’ve brought up my own kids, remember. Give us a chance.’
‘Let me think about it.’
‘Okay. I’d best be off, then.’
‘No,’ said Suzy, pulling him gently back. ‘The boys won’t be back for hours yet.’
The boys cycled back down to their bungalow. Coming downhill had been easy but their faces were still burning from the incident and the shock of it all. There was a scuffed blue car on the drive. They had never seen it before. They looked at each other, bemused. Matt opened the door with his key.
‘Hi Mum,’ he called. ‘We’re back early because -’ but then he stopped. A large man was sitting right up close to their mum on the sofa, his arm around her shoulder. Their mum’s hair was ruffled and her top was undone. Her face was flushed.
‘Matt, Jonny,’ she said, jumping up in shock and quickly buttoning her shirt. ‘This is Brian.’