Joe didn’t like the winter-coat, though his mother insisted upon him wearing it. He was an active boy and it restricted his movements, the thick padding holding his arms in stiff diagonals. Despite this earlier struggle, however, he had been biddable enough that day, playing with the children in the park whilst Sally chatted to the mothers, and practising the words that he would say to his father when they met him at the station. It seemed fair therefore, that he should have a small treat.
Sally took the biggest piece for herself, sweet strawberry gum, biting into the thick, pink square before placing the remainder into her son’s willing mouth. Chewing gum was a habit that Sally had acquired when she quit smoking, and though David did not approve, it seemed harmless enough. Certainly, Joe showed something of the pleasure the gum could give, and once he had adjusted to the sharp taste he chewed with leisure.
As he chewed they made their way down the main concourse of the shopping centre, a short-cut to the High Street. It was a familiar route to the station, Sally was on nodding terms with the security guards, and she went first, allowing Joe to indulge his many distracting curiosities. They came to a long pause when they reached the main doors; the electronic whoosh that issued each time they opened was a cause of particular interest.
Sally did not mind these pauses. She wanted Joe to develop an inquisitive mind, and in the schedule of her day she allowed him ample opportunity, leaving early to meet her husband that they might idle their way. She stood at a safe distance, therefore, watching the ponderous chewing of her son as his eyes followed the glass backward and forward. Joe made no effort to cause the movement himself; it was as though he was waiting for some complex hypothesis to be confirmed.
Outside the centre a chill autumn breeze was rushing down the corridor of the long High Street. From where she stood Sally got occasional blasts of cold air, and though she had doubted her decision in the park, within the shelter of the warm, November sun, she knew now that she had been right to coax Joe into his coat. When he was finally ready to leave, she knelt on the cold tiles before him and, despite his complaints, closed the zip up to his throat.
Joe would not accept the further protection of the hood, and Sally, knowing that she could not win this battle as well, allowed him the compromise. They stepped from the shelter of the centre unto the cold of the quiet street, Sally’s long dark hair catching in the wind and Joe’s arms outstretched, too stiff to undo his zip. The pair moved slowly across the paved entrance, delaying to examine the late-showing flowers in the bed, and then progressing down the High Street towards the station.
The accident took Joe by surprise. He tripped forward, his mouth open, as his boot caught the uneven slab, and he would have hit the ground, unprotected by his hands, if it had not been for Sally’s swift maternal reflexes. Her hand shot out as her son tripped, catching Joe by the hood and suspending him briefly in the air until he regained his footing. It was only then, with both feet firmly upon the offending slab that he thought to complain.
The noise of his cry showed all the shock of Joe’s surprise; then once the first sound had drifted off Joe turned his attention to the gum that lay on the pavement. This seemed a small loss to Sally, given that it might have been her son that was lying there. She took a piece of gum from her own mouth - it was still pink and rich in flavour - and she offered it to Joe as a replacement. They were preparing to move off, the matter resolved, when the call came from above.
Sally looked up at the command. It had issued from the roof-top, but she could not see exactly where; the buildings on the High Street were tall, the rows of shops supporting several floors of apartments. Unsuccessful in her search, she moved on, lowering her gaze and taking hold of Joe’s hand. The surprise of this new drama added to the shock of the first, and sensing instinctively that she had been addressed she increased her speed from her usual, casual pace.
“Stop, I say.”
The second command added to her hurry, and from the resistance of Joe’s hand Sally could tell that he was struggling to keep up. Her initial movements had released her fear, however, and she thought briefly of entering a shop, escaping that way from the strange cries. She opted instead to get completely off the street. She bent to lift Joe up when he could go no faster, feeling the weight of his thirty months and battling to gain a grip around the thickly padded coat.
She sensed a reflection of her own fear in the quiet compliance of her son. He was tense beneath her hold, his body stiff and expectant. Sally placed her left hand behind the crown of his head, supporting him as she had done when he was an infant. Her movement was now much closer to a run, her focus so fixed upon her end that she scarcely registered the other people on the street. What she did know for certain, as the third call confirmed, was that she was indeed being pursued.
“Stop, I say.”
These words, sounding much closer than before, sent her hurrying down an alley, formed by two new blocks of flats. At the bottom she took a right, pausing momentarily to ensure that she was not followed. This new lane was empty and unfamiliar, it provided entrances to underground car-parks, and imagining the many dangers that she faced Sally turned her run into a sprint, changing direction once more at the end of the lane and regaining the High Street.
There she paused for breath; she had not seen her pursuer, but there was no sign of unusual movement and this brought immediate relief. She lowered Joe to the path, determined now to blend into the crowds that were emerging from the underground station, and telling herself to be calm, that the second drama had also passed. She wondered what David would say, whether he would make a fuss or think her daft, and she was already deciding upon her story when the man approached.
“This is yours, I believe”, he said, holding out a ball wrapped in a strip of newspaper; “your son dropped his gum on the pavement.”
Joe had looked up. Though the man was dressed in costume, yellow lycra hugging a muscular form, and a mask covering his face, his presence had not provided the threat that Sally might have expected to one so young.
“Are you Superman?” Joe asked.
“Supersonic,” the man replied.
As he spoke Supersonic curled his fists unto his hips, angling his arms at the elbows. Sally could now clearly read the slogan beneath the image of a rocket on his chest: There’s no stopping me.
“Are you serious?” she asked.
“Never more; the streets are cleaner and safer beneath the careful watch of Supersonic.”
“I like Superman,” Joe said.
Though Sally’s shock remained the innocence of Joe’s comment seemed to steal some of the tension from the moment. She looked down at her son and smiled, then noticed as she looked up again that the passing faces were sharing their attention between the costumed man, herself and her son. She put out her hand to bring the scene to an end and accepted the ball of paper. Without a further word the lycra hero ran off.
“I like Superman,” Joe repeated.
“Me too”, answered Sally, wondering anew how she would explain events to David.
Certain now that her husband would laugh, before returning to his criticism of gum, she took a tissue from her pocket and held it for Joe to empty his mouth. Once this evidence was secured she added her own to the tissue; then she found a bin where she deposited the three pieces. They were able to move more slowly again, Joe excited that his father would soon emerge from the station. He walked in a distracted manner, held within the warmth of his coat, and repeating occasionally:
“I like Superman.”