Sophie cleared the plates. Mark, her son, back from university for Easter didn’t help. In her head she told him what she thought. ‘So any plans for the summer?’
‘Huh?’ He was already at his phone. ‘What? Yeah. Maybe climb Kili.’
The look on his face mirrored how she felt about his indolence. ‘Manjaro? Big mountain in Africa?’
‘You’ll need to earn some money.’
Mark stood and made for the door. ‘Sorted mum. See you later.’
She watched him grab his coat. She wanted to ask about revision and exams – she assumed there would be exams, not that he said – and this trip, how was the money ‘sorted’? Alongside the standard questions she never got to ask? Could he tidy his room; would he be back for dinner; and who was Marti whose name she’d caught him saying to his best friend before he closed the door? Was this a girlfriend? Frustratingly everything was on a need to know basis these days.
Filling the dishwasher she reflected how quickly your children no longer need you, save as a skivvy and bank of first and last resort. Except when it came to foreign mountains, it seemed.
‘Bye darling. Have a great time. Send us a picture.’
Mark nodded, not really listening. Sophie caught Marti’s eye, who smiled. She said, ‘If you join Facebook, Sophie, I’ll friend you and…’
Suddenly Mark was animated. ‘Hell no, Marti.’
Sophie turned, ready to argue but he was grinning.
‘If Marti tells me you don’t stalk her, maybe I’ll let you be my Facebook friend too.’
Sophie reached up and kissed her son on the cheek essaying a swift hug; she wasn’t going to push her luck. ‘As if I want to see pictures of body parts I haven’t seen since you were 10. I’ll leave you two love birds to say goodbye. I’ll see you in Costa, Marti. No hurry.’
Sophie smiled as she walked away, holding an image of her son putting an arm around the delightful Marti. A man of good taste. And what a trip. Not the lads’ jolly she’d assumed but a charity-based adventure involving a sponsored climb up Kilimanjaro then a month working in an orphanage. That took her back to when she’d gone to France as an au pair leaving Jack, Mark’s dad, behind. That farewell had been awful, too.
Marti sat opposite, her eyes smudged. Sophie handed her a tissue and Marti laughed. ‘I’m a mess?’
‘Yep. Never gets any better. He’ll be fine.’
‘You think? I wish he was going with his friends but he wanted to climb Kili first and meet them later.’
Sounding more confident than she felt, Sophie said, ‘He’ll be with others his age. He’s good at making friends, he’ll be okay.’ Would he though? He was still her little boy. Was he really that competent?
Three days later
‘Mum? It’s Mark.’
‘Hello. Shouldn’t you be climbing by now? Is the weather…?’
‘Mum, I’ve not much money so let me speak. They’ve put me under house arrest…’
‘Arrest? What’s happened?’
‘Mum, shush. It’s really quarantine. Can you write down this number so you can ring it back?’
Sophie’s hands shook and she dialled the phone number he’d dictated. ‘Mark?’
The voice at the other end sounded angry and made no sense. Just as she was about to despair she heard her son. ‘Hi. Thanks Mum.’
‘What’s happened? Are you ill?’
‘A bit of a sort throat, that’s all.’
‘I don’t think they’ll let me have much time. They think I’ve swine flu.’
‘Oh that’s ridiculous. How on earth…?’
‘Mum, stop panicking. I was told to get my throat checked – the group leader says I shouldn’t climb if I have a virus. I think he expected me to be given some antibiotics or something but this outbreak in the UK, it’s all over the papers and Tanzania don’t have any way of vaccinating people. They said they had no choice but to quarantine me.’
When Sophie put down the phone she realised, in a way she’d not before, that there was nothing she could do. Her son was stuck in a hotel, alone, guarded and possibly ill with some deadly disease in a third world country with no real health service. She felt utterly helpless.
Two days later
‘Mum? It’s Mark. They’ve said I’m ok to go.’
‘Oh thank heavens. So what now. Do you get to climb?’
‘That’s the bugger. I have to go with the group when they get back. The next party they have climbing is in three weeks..’
‘That is such a shame.’
‘I’ll survive, I expect. Mum. I wondered. Could you tell Marti? I didn’t want to worry her but she’ll find out soon enough, when I join the others.’
Sophie cradled the phone, checking the number she’d written down. She was wrong about her role: bank, skivvy and breaker of difficult news. She still had her uses then.
This story is based on fact; the Lawyer experienced the house arrest in the way described when he tried to climb Kili, while the swine flu panic gripped the world – it didn’t help that the first UK based scare was a pupil in his old school and which the Vet still attended. To add insult to injury, he tried to climb again three weeks later, spending 24 hours on buses crossing Tanzania only to find the group he was to join had left 12 hours before he arrived due to some possible adverse weather. It remains in his bucket list…