"Mummy, there's a lion in the garden."
Mummy, who was busy cooking, released her shirt from Matthew's grubby fingers.
"Yes, dear." She glanced down at a round face staring up expectantly at her. What was she supposed to do about it?
"Uh, what does it look like?" she asked as she turned back to the fish lying on the worktop. This was the tricky part.
"It's big and yellow and..."
"Ah, but is it a mummy lion or a daddy lion?"
"I don't know," said Matthew.
"If it's a daddy lion it'll have a mane, which is a lot of hair all around its head and neck. If it's a mummy lion it won't." Now, how did Rick Stein say you should go about filleting a fish?
"I'll look." Matthew ran to the back door and pushed his nose against the double glazing while Mummy scanned the recipe. Fish were frightening. Too many bones.
"Mummy, Mummy, it's definitely a daddy lion." Matthew pulled her sleeve, nearly making her drop the skilleting knife.
"Matthew, how many times have I told you, you mustn't do that, not when I'm holding a knife."
"Sorry, Mummy." For a moment the boy contrived to look sad, but soon the excitement grew too much and he began bouncing on the spot like a self-propelled rubber ball.
"He's so big and scary. Do you think he'd win in a fight with a Tyrannosaurus rex? That's my favourite dinosaur. Come and see, Mummy." He reached up to try and grab the sleeve again.
"Not now, Matthew. Can't you see I'm busy? It's a very important dinner this evening for your daddy and me – if we land this client it'll save the business." Mummy compared the stripped clean fish glistening from the pages of the book to the ravaged mound of flesh before her. Was it too late to call in caterers?
It had all gone very quiet. She glanced down and saw Matthew's face had begun to crumple.
"Darling, I know, why don't you draw me a picture of the lion. I'm sure Daddy would like to see it too. You know where the paper and pens are."
"The man who's coming, he'd like to see it too?"
"Of course he would." How could she save this? Time to try something else entirely? A quick glance at the clock. It was too late. And what was that strange odour?
Matthew reappeared, pens and paper in hand, and sat down by the back door, looking out intently and then stooping over his drawing.
Where was the smell coming from? Mummy checked the stove, but nothing was on. The oven? It hardly smelled like roasting vegetables, more like burning rubber...
The ghost of a memory materialised. She couldn't have, could she?
Mummy opened the oven. The yellow rubber from a melting pair of kitchen gloves was dripping slowly onto the vegetables.
"Yuck, what's that horrible smell?"
"Do not. Say. Another. Word."
A sharp hand movement shushed him into silence. She grabbed the tongs and pulled the gloves out of the oven. A final viscous yellow drop detached itself from the rapidly congealing rubber and fell to the floor.
"That's what's smelling, Mummy," said Matthew helpfully.
"I know." The words sounded peculiarly strangled. Matthew saw that his mother's face was, if anything, stiffening even faster than the gloves.
"You could try making a wish. Nasty smell, go away..."
"...come again another day."
"Matthew, go away," said Mummy, choosing glaciation over eruption among the limited number of emotional options.
"Get out. Go and play. Now."
"But, Mummy, the lion..."
Mummy looked at Matthew.
"Now," she said.
Matthew went to the back door and looked out. It really didn't look like a very friendly lion.
"Yes, tonight, I know it's short notice but it's an emergency..."
Matthew didn't really listen to the conversation his mother was having on the phone. The lion was sitting under the apple tree. It yawned.
Mummy, temporarily put on hold, put her hand over the mouthpiece.
"What are you still doing inside?" she said.
"He looks a bit fierce, Mummy."
But at that point the hold was removed and the conversation resumed, with Mummy pacing up and down in the kitchen, tapping worktop and table with a pencil as she went.
"I know." Matthew scurried out of the kitchen and reappeared a minute later, sword in hand, shield on arm.
"That's it, dear, protect Mummy." She patted him on the head as he passed her.
Matthew stood in the doorway. He had the cross of St George painted on his shield. His sword was Arthur's own, the one that he had used to defeat the evil Sir Mordred. He was a proper knight.
But the lion looked at him and there was nothing human in its yellow eyes. Matthew looked back at his mother but she was busy and besides he knew it was his job to look after his mummy and protect her from dragons and bad knights and... and lions.
Matthew advanced into the garden. The lion, sitting on its haunches under the apple tree, blinked.
It really was an awfully big lion. Matthew stopped. He glanced down at his wooden sword. He looked up at the lion. He went back inside.
"What do you mean, you can't fit me in – not now, Matthew – look, whatever your usual rate is, I'll double it. I said, not now, Matthew. Oh, come on, there must be some way you can..."
Mummy was busy. And he had tried to ask. The skilleting knife was on the table, within easy reach. It was as long as his sword but rather sharper. He went to pick it up, but his hand stopped as his fingers touched the handle. Mummy said never to play with knives.
"...for God's sake, it's just one little dinner party, not a banquet..."
This wasn't playing.
Matthew went back out the door and marched up the garden path towards the lion, shield on one arm, knife in the other.
The lion blinked. This was the first time it had been stalked. The normal pattern was for prey to carry on its business in blissful ignorance and then, when the knowledge dawned on the prey that it wasn't, in fact, deer, or antelope, or Dave, or Amanda, but simply prey, by then the knowledge was too late. But this prey wasn't acting like prey at all. The lion twitched its tail, uncertain what to do.
Matthew marched closer. The lion was showing no sign of dissolving into shadows, or resolving into an unusual pattern of light and shade beneath the apple tree. Therefore, it must be a real lion, and he had to protect his mummy. That was the duty of a true knight.
The boy stopped six feet in front of the tree and adopted his fighting stance: shield raised, sword arm poised to strike. But no true knight would enter battle without a proper challenge.
"My name is Sir Matthew, son of Mummy, and I'm going to kill you."
The lion, backed up against the tree, swished its tail. Yellow eyes, as deep as amber, stared at the small figure. Muscles bunched, claws sought purchase in the earth.
The lion leapt.
"Don't you understand? The fish is ruined, everything else is in the freezer and won't defrost in time and there's melted rubber all over the vegetables. This is an incredibly important dinner for us and you aren't being any help at all... Hello? Hello?"
Mummy stared at the receiver in disbelief. She'd been cut off.
"Damn it, why the hell did I decide on fish?" she asked herself. "I'm a butcher's daughter, not a fishwife."
"Mummy, Mummy." She looked down at the hand tugging her sleeve.
"What is it now, Matthew?"
"I killed the lion, Mummy."
"Did you really, darling. That's marvelous."
"Come and see."
"Not now, Matthew, I'm trying to stop this dinner turning into a disaster. All because Daddy told me to cook something exotic. I should have stuck to steak – meat I understand. Just be a good boy, put down that knife and run and play..."
"What are you doing with a knife?" She snatched it from her son, then squatted down in front of him. "I've told you, never play with knives."
"It wasn't a game, Mummy," said Matthew. They both looked at the knife. It was covered in a thick, dark liquid. Mother looked at son again. She saw that his face was streaked with tears and dirt, his hands were stained and the shield of St George was hanging broken from his arm.
"It jumped at me and it was so big and I fell over and it landed on me and I stabbed it but I thought I was going to be squashed. It rolled off me though. It's dead now."
"The lion, Mummy."
Matthew took his mother by the hand and led her out into the garden. Lying on the grass was the beast.
A short passage of hysteria later, after Matthew managed to extricate himself from his alternately sobbing and laughing mother, and in an effort to ensure that maternal envelopment would not resume, he reminded her that she was supposed to be cooking.
"It's ruined. Daddy's career's over. But never mind about that, come here my brave little knight."
Matthew skipped adroitly out of the way of the embrace and looked at the dead animal. Then he looked at his mother. She followed his gaze, and smiled.
"And this," said Mummy, "is our son, Matthew. He specially helped me with, er, preparing the meal."
Matthew bounced excitedly. He was wearing his knight-in-armour pyjamas and had been allowed to stay up especially late.
"A pleasure to meet you," said the client, holding out his hand.
Matthew looked at his mother, who tried mouthing "Shake it," at him.
"Why do you want me to bake it, Mummy?" he asked.
"No, no, not bake, shake. Shake hands, darling, with Mr Baker."
"Well done with the dinner, young man," said Mr Baker. "Your father promised me something unusual and you and your mother certainly delivered. I hope your father proves as resourceful and innovative with our account." Mr Baker leaned closer and whispered. "Your mother is refusing to tell me what the meat was, she says it's a secret. Will you tell me?"
Matthew shook his head.
"Not even a clue?"
"It wasn't chicken."