So the group’s homework this month caused us some trouble. We’d been looking at Writing Maps for a source of inspiration and I’d brought along the character map this time. (The previous month’s homework had used the My Writing Life map which had resulted in several stories that could all have been set in the same tropical hotel – weird.) We picked the challenge ‘Sit with your character on a park bench and talk about love’. The idea is to use a character that you’ve found for a piece of work – a novel, short story or whatever – and use the exercises to delve deeper and get to know that person. One of us actually did this and found it hard, partly because of that thing that makes your characters an extension of yourself. How much will you actually discuss with them. Another group member went the other way and told a rather sweet story about two characters, one strangely silent, in the park and a monologue about love. It’s only at the end she revealed the other character was a Labrador. For my story, I wasn’t ready to use my existing character, Valerie. So I invented a scenario based on some work I’d done in the day job about a children’s bereavement charity and turned it into a stand alone story. Here’s my effort:

We usually came to the park, the two of us. It had become a regular trip, while his aunt took her daughter to dance lessons.

“He’ll just be bored,” Jo, his aunt and my friend, had said, “and it gives him a chance to talk to someone new, someone who isn’t family. Are you sure you don’t mind?”

“I’d like to help,” I said. “And give you a hand. He’s a nice kid.”

We’d come to the park the first time, I’d brought a football with me in case Alex had wanted a kickabout. He hadn’t. We watched the ducks and the people, casual, no pressure. I left my own daughter with her dad, wanting Alex to feel like this was his time.

“I want to spend more time with him,” Jo had said to me when I first ventured to take him out. “I talk a bit at bedtime but you know what it’s like the rest of the time here – work, school, Brownies, golf, zumba, football…” she looked a bit despairing. I knew she’d been happy to take her sister’s son in after Jessica died but to go from being an only son to competing with your cousins for affection and time at the same time as dealing with the death of your mum, well, it would be hard on anyone wouldn’t it? And he was only ten. Jo couldn’t put everyone else’s life on hold while she sorted him out. So I stepped in. It was only six weeks since Jessica had died. He’d been quiet and polite. Hardly said anything. It was understandable. There was a lot on his mind.

This was our third trip out. He was getting used to me. Today we had an ice cream from the van and sat on a bench licking. I decided not to say anything. He sat and stared at the pond, thinking hard. Eventually he raised his head and spoke.

“The nurses said she was glad to die,” he said. “One nurse. She said it was a blessing that it was over.” He spoke quietly, but the pain was written all over his face. He must have been living with this ever since.

“Do you think that’s true?” he asked. He turned to me. I couldn’t bullshit him. There was no comforting platitudes that would work here. Only the truth.

“No, I don’t,” I said. I sat for a moment. How best to explain this?

“I think the nurse said that because your mum would have been in pain near the end and that this was the only way the pain would end. I think she meant it to be comforting – you wouldn’t want your mum to be constantly in pain would you?” He shook his head but waited for me to go on.

“I don’t think she wanted to die. If it was me, I know I wouldn’t. She wouldn’t ever have wanted to leave you.” We were sitting, both very still, only our hair moving with the breeze.

“Since I became a mum I’ve been very aware that at some point I will die. You read all these articles and books and they tell you how you can make sure your baby is looked after, that you worry about the baby dying but no one ever tells you that you look at your own death in a different way too. I don’t ever want to die and leave my baby behind. I don’t want to miss anything about her life. I think that’s what your mum felt too. She didn’t want to leave you, to miss seeing you grow up.”

He sat with his head down, staring at the grass. His ice cream cone hung from his hand.

“If it was me, I’d be furious. I bet she lay in her hospital bed raging against the disease, against the doctors, against the drugs, screwing up all her energy in hating the illness that was going to take her away from you. I think she might have been glad to get past the illness, to get past the pain and the inconvenience and the fear but I know she’d never be glad to die and to be away from you. I think she was furious about that. I know I would be. It’s so fucking unfair.”

A passing older couple looked at me sharply for swearing in front of a child. I stared back. This was one occasion where I felt it was appropriate. I looked back at Alex. He was crying.

“Oh sweetheart,” I said and took him in my arms. He sobbed for a long time and all I could do was hold him.

Eventually he pulled away, snot and tears mixing in a gloop that stuck to my coat.

“Sorry,” he said and tried to brush it off before realising that might look odd. He pulled his hand away quickly.

“It’s ok.” He nodded.

I picked up our discarded cone pieces that had fallen to the floor. Once I’d placed them in a bin I looked at him.

“Race you to that tree,” I said. He smiled. A bit of pounding exercise should be just the thing. We went.