IZZY poked the fire with a stick, wondering where to begin, then looked at her nephew with that understanding smile of hers.

“Finn, sweetie, Ewen…, your dad, wasn’t perfect, no one is, but he was a loving and caring man, I can tell you that without hesitation. He loved being your dad. I had never seen a man change nappies before, or spend time being the carer like he did. I know that might not sound so unusual now, but then it was.

“It was so different to my and your mum’s experience of fatherhood. Your papa, when we were young, was the traditional kind of dad, being, you know, at work most of the time and not really doing much hands-on childcare, except the occasional fun stuff. Ewen wanted more than that.”

Finn smiled. He couldn’t recall being a baby of course, but now he did have newly remembered memories of his dad. Snippets of his past, in which feelings were recalled as much as events.

“So what went so wrong? Why did mum want my dad out of my life?”

Izzy chewed her bottom lip and looked into the fire as she assembled her thoughts.

“It was so sad when they separated. They had been so happy together and what I can tell you is, despite the hurt, they were at first on reasonably good terms. They wanted to do their best for you.

“But when divorce proceedings began they had to agree on legal custody arrangements for you. That’s when things turned sour. Your mum wanted custody and Ewen found the idea of being what he called a part-time weekend dad unbearable.”

The words sent a shaft of pain right through Finn; he knew exactly this feeling. He lowered his head and raised his hand as if to defend himself from further words. Ceilidh, who was sitting close by, seemed to sense his emotion and came to him, curling herself around his legs, licking the top of his hand and placing her head on his knee.

Izzy waited before saying anything else. After some moments, Finn gave a nod, a sign he was ready to hear what was to follow.

“At first they tried to work through disagreements together. Your dad wanted shared custody but the problem was the system was winner-takes-all, and anyway, the belief in those days was that looking after the kids was a mother’s responsibility.

“It made your mum feel she would be judged a bad mother if she compromised on full custody. This was reinforced by her lawyer, who kept talking about the importance of winning. He told her that custody wasn’t something that could be legally shared, it was to be lost or won and she had to choose which she wanted.

“It was horrible, Finn. I watched two people who had once loved each other being torn by a system that turned their child into a prize for the winner. They did try to shield you from it, but as things fell apart it became bitter, like a kind of trench warfare with you in the middle. Things were said that were untrue and deeply hurtful, accusations made that couldn’t be taken back.

“I tried to mediate, I really did, I loved them both, and of course you. I was your godmother as well as your aunt, you were just six years old and your world was being ripped apart by a process that never considered what would be a win for you!

“Eventually, your dad realised he was going to have to accept being the loser in a system so heavily weighted, otherwise he’d risk losing you completely.

“He was devastated to be honest. He became what he had dreaded: the ‘non-resident parent’. On one official document he was even labelled ‘the absent parent’, which deeply upset him.

“When he applied for a council house, he was told he had to answer ‘none’ to the question ‘number of dependents’. All this made him feel he was no longer a proper dad and depression got a hold of him.”

Finn’s stomach twisted, all this was so close to the bone of his own experience. But he wanted to hear it; he needed to hear it, so he indicated to his aunt to continue.

“But then, after speaking to a friend in the same position, he seemed to pull himself out of it. He’d only have you at alternate weekends but he made the most of this limited time, making sure you had time with your nanna too.”

“Yeah I remember,” said Finn. “I’d so look forward to being with him. One thing I clearly remember from that time is playing pirates under the birch tree with him. Then he just seemed to leave my life.”

Izzy was hesitant, not sure how to explain, but then just said it.

“Your dad met Sally and quite soon afterwards she got pregnant. It came at a time he was pushing for you to have more time with him. Your mum was suffering from depression at the time and she became afraid that you’d eventually prefer to be with your dad and sibling she couldn’t give you – that she’d end up being the loser in the winner-takes-all system.”

“What do you mean she couldn’t give me siblings? Wasn’t that her choice? Especially after she met Raymond.”

Izzy shook her head.

“No, Finn, sorry, I assumed you knew. Your mum couldn’t have more children after you.”

Finn took in a deep breath: “She always told me she didn’t want more children because she loved me so much. Poor mum.”

Izzy nodded: “Yep, it was really hard for her. But you were her life.”

“Mum was my life too,” said Finn.

He looked up at the moon which was beginning to appear, although the sky was not yet dark. He spoke while still looking at the moon.

“So she took my dad from me because she was afraid she’d lose me?”

Finn turned his gaze towards Izzy. She remained silent but now he understood; he knew what anxiety, insecurity and depression could do.

“I felt so sorry for you, Finn, I could see the trauma it was causing you. You loved both your parents. Ewen was in agony at being separated from you and I was appalled at what my sister had done.

“But I also loved her and I knew how she felt. I desperately tried to persuade her to change her mind, think of what it was doing to you. But things had gone so far and everything was said via the lawyers, who just dug deeper trenches. My parents didn’t help; they had old-fashioned views on parenting and told me that you’d get over it and I had to support my sister because she was family.

“I really felt for your nanna, she had to support her son who was in such despair, as well as cope with her own loss. She actually went to plead with my parents, whom she’d had a good relationship with beforehand, even going on holiday with them. But all the frustration and hurt came out as anger and it just made it worse, if that was possible.

“Your dad turned to social services, thinking they might help, but they didn’t, quite the opposite. He lost hope and I had to end my friendship with him in order to continue seeing you and my family. Then later…”

Izzy stopped mid-sentence, not sure if she could continue. Finn, of course, knew she was going to say something important, but was now holding back.

“Yes, later what, you must tell me everything.”

“I got a call from Sally. Fiona was just a baby and your dad had gone missing. We eventually found him, in a suicidal state...”

Finn put his head in his hands. “Jesus.”

Izzy stopped.

“No, go on, I need to understand,” he urged.

“I couldn’t walk away after that, so I spent some time to support him and Sally, and help, along with your nanna, to look after Fiona. But that meant I couldn’t see you for over a year.

“I was eventually allowed back into your life after I promised I wasn’t friends with your dad anymore. But that wasn’t true. I kept our friendship secret from my family.

“Then, when you were 11, your mum had to go to Spain for an important business conference. By this time I had rebuilt her trust in me. She agreed to let me take you on the road trip, even to tell your grandfather’s stories to you, as long as I promised not to say anything about where they came from.”

Finn was confused as to why his mum would agree to this, so Izzy explained.

“Your mum had liked your grandfather very much, as I did, even though we didn’t know him that long. But of course your mum had no idea Ewen would be secretly following us, which had been my idea. She’d made me promise not to even mention him. I did, of course, feel guilty for betraying my sister’s trust. But I justified it to myself because it meant your dad could see you, feel close to you, and witness the fulfilment of his promise that he would one day take you along the Road of Legends.

“We planned it carefully and you were never supposed to know he was there, until perhaps much later if you came back into his life. That’s why your dad wrote the journal.

“I’m so, so sorry for the way it ended at the Lost Valley, Finn; that was never meant to happen; it must have been such a shock and ultimate betrayal.”

Izzy ran her fingers through her hair, shaking her head.

“Nobody was the winner in all this. Not even your mum in the end if you think about it. Well, maybe the lawyers were.

“What your mum did was so wrong, but she isn’t a bad person, I’ve always known that. That might sound contradictory, but I think the fear of losing someone you love can sometimes make you do terrible things that even hurt the person you love. It’s the damn system, it puts parents into a gladiatorial ring.”

She was finished, she’d finally said it all. She poured a cup of wine and took two huge gulps.

“That’s the truth as I see it,” she said, “but it’s not the only version of the truth, I know that.”

Finn sat quietly, his brain in overload at what his aunt had just told him. He needed time to take it in. He stood up and walked with a cup of wine to the shoreline, where the sea lightly lapped the smooth pebbles. Ceilidh followed him to the water’s edge as if she was concerned about him.

The moon was more prominent now in a darkening sky, and Finn looked up at it.

“Is that a waxing or waning moon, Ceilidh?” he asked the dog.

She wagged her tail.

Finn answered for her. “It’s a waxing crescent moon and right now my daughter Eilidh will be sleeping under the very same moon. It’s watching over the both of us.”

He looked down at the moon’s flickering reflection in the water, and saw a heart-shaped stone on the beach.

He picked it up.

Then it came.

Deep inside him a dam broke, emotions long held in check rushed his being in an unstoppable torrent. He opened his mouth to scream but at first there was no sound, just a gasp. Then a howl, followed by a heart-rending cry and a monsoon of tears. His body shook, he dropped his cup without realising and it smashed on the beach.

Ceilidh barked and ran towards Izzy but she was already rushing to her nephew. She cradled him as he fell, just as she’d done with his dad 26 years earlier.

She held him tight. “Yes sweetie, let it go, don’t hold onto it anymore, let it out.”

Now, finally, she hoped, his healing could begin.