The Witches Coven

By Esther Freud

There’s a picnic in the woods. It’s an annual event held by the Friends of the Woods and I decide that we will go. I tell my girl, I warn her, we’re going to be going out, just five minutes from the house, but she goes pale. ‘I don’t want to,’ she says, ‘don’t make me. All I want to do is stay at home, forever, and never go out again.’ My heart sinks. ‘No,’ I say, ‘I’ve decided, I’m determined, we’ve been in long enough.’

Sunday comes. I cook sausages, buy bread and cheese, roast vegetables and pack them into a bowl. I roll up a blanket, fill a water bottle, invite along a friend, but my daughter’s eyes are wild. ‘Don’t make me go,’ she pleads.

She clings to me as we walk down the road. The others drift ahead, my boys, fearless, confused, roar off on scooters, using their feet as brakes as they hurtle downhill. ‘How long will we stay?’ she interrogates me. ‘Not long.’ I tell her. ‘It’s alright. You’ll be alright. Nothing bad can happen. ’ Her arm is thin as it clings to mine, her hand light as a claw. There are signs for the picnic pinned to trees, not pinned, but fastened so as not to damage bark. Head to Witches Coven, they direct us. Will there be witches there do you think? I ask her, jolly, but nothing helps.

The witches coven is a clearing ringed by stands, on which are laid activities for children. Cameras to enter a wildlife exhibition, a place to colour in pictures of birds. We lay out our blanket, unpack our food, and for a moment my daughter loses herself, forgets her fear, she’s colouring, busily, chatting with another girl, and then I ask if she wants a camera, there are prizes to be won, and she remembers. The colour, newly risen, drains away. ‘I have to go home,’ the panic is rising. ‘I have to go home now.’

We abandon the others and hurry back up the hill, and as soon as we are on the way, really going, she begins to calm. She’s going to be alright. She’ll be at home. And I will be with her, colouring in birds, watching them fly past the kitchen window.