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Fiction

Bay of Biscay

13 March, 2015 0 Comments

First published in the October 2013 issue of Spotlight

He had been sleeping lightly for the past hour or two, his troubled mind rocked by the constant throbbing of the boat’s engine. Yawning, he looked at the illuminated dial of the big watch he always wore when sailing — the one she had given him for his 30th birthday. It told him it was now nearly 3 a.m. He got up slowly and felt the salty breeze on his face. The wind had picked up while he had been sleeping, and there was enough now to fill the sails, even if the direction was not ideal. He turned off the auto – pilot and the motor for the first time since the previous evening and set the sails.

Once he was satisfied that the yacht was more or less on course, he looked across from the softly lit compass to the blackness straight ahead. He picked out a pattern of stars that he could focus on. By making sure the prow was lined up with these stars, he would keep the little boat heading in the right direction, his steadying hands on the wheel.

Was this little group of stars a constellation? Perhaps, but not one he recognized. She would have known, of course. She knew everything about the sun, the planets and the stars, about the world and how it all fitted together. But she wasn’t here. He thought about the stars and what lay between him and them. Nothing more than a thin wisp of gas that clung to the rock and water of the earth — like mist across fields on a summer morning, ready to be burned away by the sun. After that, there was nothing but the loneliness of infinite space and scattered dust.

The lump that he felt in his throat made it hard for him to breathe. The stars blurred for a moment, and he blinked several times. The sails suddenly fluttered as the boat drifted briefly, until he turned the wheel hard to port, bringing the yacht back on course.

Where was he travelling to in this little boat? Somewhere that held memories, or somewhere that would hold nothing to remind him? Was it even important, just as long as he kept on moving?

Under his feet, the wood and fibreglass boat moaned. This was a strong pocket cruiser that could comfortably sleep a crew of four, a little family yacht for holidays and adventure. But the four berths lay empty, and he felt as if he were the only living creature breathing the cool air.

He looked at the horizon. Apart from the stars, there were no lights in any direction, no friends in the night in this dark bowl of ocean.

Below the boat, the rolling waters carried on down to the earth’s crust.

This was the right place for him, this cold emptiness, where he could think about all that had happened.

The deep quiet of his thoughts was broken by a sudden sound, a gently explosive rasp. Had he imagined it? He listened, and there it was again, just off to the side of the little yacht, to his right.

Keeping one hand firmly on the wheel, he moved to the side of the boat and looked down into the darkness of the waters. At first he could see nothing. But there, with the next rasp, came a shower of seawater through the air from a darkness more solid and smooth than the ocean itself. Up ahead was a patch of shining green, a reflection of his starboard light.

Slowly he could make out more of the beautiful living thing that had chosen to join him and keep him company on his journey — bigger than his boat, moving with gentle power at his side.

For the next hour, the great whale matched the speed and direction of the yacht exactly, keeping so close that he was sure he could have leaned out and touched it if he had wanted to.

Each time he looked out across the water, the sight of the whale’s steady presence brought joy to his heart, and he breathed in the cool night air deeply and easily.

Soon after the first light of dawn appeared in the east, washing the darkness from the sea, the whale’s head rose for a moment, as its back arched and the whole of it sank into the depths, the great tail following last.

The wind dropped, and the sails fluttered. He wondered if he would need to start the motor again, but very soon came a more favourable wind than that of the night, and he was on his way. The sails filled grandly as the sun rose, and the little boat moved eastward through the ocean towards the morning.

Wildfire

13 March, 2015 2 Comments

First published in the November 2012 issue of Spotlight

That summer was one of the hottest on record. The country was in the middle of a heatwave, and we hadn’t had any rain for nearly a month. The river was low, and it stank. The ground was bone dry. The newspapers were full of reports of long queues for water, and round the dinner table, grown-ups talked gloomily about the terrible effect it was having on the farmers. It was fantastic!

My friends and I were in our second week of the long, school summer holidays and having the time of our young lives. Sometimes, we played in the streets and gardens, annoying parents and neighbours with our noise and nonsense. More often, we went down into the parched valley and played amongst the trees, running across sun-cracked fields or lazing in the shade or sunshine, depending on our mood.

Most of our wild adventures were imagined. They were harmless games in which we played out the stories we invented as we passed away the long, hot days. Some of our adventures, however, were a little more real, a little more wild, a little more dangerous.

One morning, my Mum had taken me into town for a haircut, so I was late getting to the bridge where we had agreed to meet. When I got there, my friends had already moved on, so I wandered up the path past the rocks, guessing that the others were on their way to the playground. About halfway up, I saw them, two heads moving in the brown grass on the hillside. I charged over and found Ben and Chrissie huddled together round a wisp of white smoke.

Ben was my best friend. He went to the same school as I did and lived just two doors away. He had brought the magnifying glass from the detective’s set he had got for his birthday. He was holding the glass very still, keeping a circle of sunshine tightly focused on a dried blade of grass, while Chrissie, Ben’s cousin, gently blew on the spreading glow.

The glow continued up the blade and sprang into life for just a second. Ben then passed the glass to Chrissie and started tearing up bits of grass to make a small pile. In no time at all, the dry grass was burning. They carried on feeding the flame with more grass until they had a real little fire popping and fizzing between them. Despite the hot sun on my neck, I knelt down beside them and held out my hands to feel the heat better. I took the wrapper off a packet of peppermints I had in my pocket and held it into the flame until it burned briefly — a bright green colour.

Our little fire quickly turned into a black patch, but the friendly flames were now moving to the surrounding ground, and soon an untidy circle of flame began to creep outward, forcing us to skip back a little as it snapped at our feet.

Suddenly, we heard a voice from somewhere below. A man walking his dog on the other side of the river was waving and shouting words we couldn’t catch, while his dog barked crazily. We ran.

We ran up the hill, across the field and past the playground. We climbed over the gate and ran up Pope’s Way and into Shelley Street. We cut through to Brontë Road and heard the wail of a siren approaching fast. Then we quickly sat down on the pavement as though in the middle of a game as the fire engine raced past.

We jumped up and ran after the engine until it came to a stop where the road ended and the steps led down into the valley. Four big-booted firemen in yellow helmets jumped from the engine holding large brushes. They ran down the steps and along the path, we three in hot pursuit. As we chased them, we could see thick, white smoke rising ahead. When we reached the spot, much of the hillside was black and smouldering, while flames continued to cover the rest.

The firemen beat the burning grass with their brushes, and we used green branches wrested from the trees to help. We leaped and danced, hitting at the flames, yelling instructions at one another to help here or run there.

More children had appeared from who knows where, ready to join in, and soon, a second fire crew arrived at the top of the hill and started to spray water on to the scorched earth.

In less than half an hour, the fire was beaten into submission. In the blackened surroundings, we glowed with soot and sweat, our eyes burning, our shoelaces singed and our hearts filled with joy.

One of the firemen approached. “Know anything about this, boys?” he asked.

Eyes wide, we shook our heads.

“Well, thanks for your help, then.”

“No problem. Any time.”

Putting out fires was nearly as much fun as starting them.

The mountain railway

13 March, 2015 0 Comments

First published in the October 2014 issue of Spotlight

Julie blew hard on the whistle and slowly opened the throttle until the big, red steam locomotive began to pull on the ten coaches attached behind.

The engine started slowly, picking up the weight of each coach until the whole train was moving out of the little station.

The coaches were filled with holidaymakers enjoying a journey through the Welsh mountains in the late summer sunshine. The original railway had been closed many years before, but in recent times, volunteers had been rebuilding it bit by bit.

Julie was driving today, using all her care to give the passengers a smooth ride. She had spent every holiday for the past ten years working on the railway. Yesterday, she had sat at a desk in a windowless call centre in Birmingham, answering questions from customers about fridges, cookers and freezers. And now, here she was, under a blue sky, and around her, fields and mountains.

Once out of the station, the train thundered along the narrow track with steam flying from the funnel of the engine.

A mile away, farmer Sam Evans was driving his green tractor across a field. He was thinking about sick cows and low milk prices and how to pay for tractor parts. Not that he wanted to be rich: he just wanted to survive. His family had been running this farm for more than a hundred years.

He stopped to let himself through a gate into the next field, taking care to close the gate again before he drove on. Sam had been up before 5 a.m. for morning milking. He wouldn’t be finished until after 11.30 p.m. “And for what? It’s killing me,” he told the empty field.

As the train made its way through the hills and valleys between Porthmadog and Caernarfon, there were many places where roads, footpaths and farm tracks crossed the line. Even though this was a newly reopened stretch of the railway, Julie knew the exact location of every crossing, and at each one, she would blow the whistle to warn of the train’s approach.

Sam Evans drove his tractor across the next field. He was thinking about bank managers and high interest rates. He was thinking about arguments with his wife and his father. The mountains towered over him, and he felt their weight pushing down on him.

Sam’s tractor was a John Deere 2355, built in Mannheim in 1997. Not quite six metres long, it weighed a little under three tonnes.

Julie’s locomotive was a Garratt NGG16, built in Manchester in 1958 for South African Railways. Nearly 15 metres long, it weighed 62 tonnes.

Julie blew the whistle as her train came to a level crossing. When it passed, a little boy waved to her from a waiting car.

The tractor slowly crossed another field.

The train rattled across an iron bridge and into a bend.

The tractor moved towards a gate.

As the train came round the long curve, Julie saw the little, green tractor moving towards the crossing. It would stop in a moment or two. The driver would jump out, ready to open the gate once the train had safely passed.

Sam was deep in thought. Maybe it was time to make a change. When you find at the end of the year you’ve lost money again, it must be time to think about alternatives. He drove the tractor towards the gate he had opened earlier that morning. He hadn’t closed this one. There were no cows or sheep in this field or the next. He stared ahead, thinking of what he would do if he sold the farm. What would his father think? What would his wife say? The nose of the tractor rose up slightly as it moved on to the railway track.

Julie’s heart leapt into her mouth, and she pulled the emergency brake, bracing herself for the impact.

The train began its long screech to a halt, and Sam looked round at the terrible noise. He stared in horror at the engine. His mouth opened wide. His arms and legs froze. Black smoke filled the air, and as the engine roared in his ears, the two machines slid past each other.

When the train stopped many long seconds later, Julie slowly opened her eyes. She climbed down from the engine and ran past the carriages of stunned passengers. The tractor stood in one piece in the next field, its driver leaning out of his cab. It seemed he was being sick. “That was close,” thought Julie. “Well, no harm done,” she called to the passengers in a shaky voice. “Best be on our way.”

Sam sat back in his cab, his eyes closed and his hands trembling. “Yes. It’s definitely time for a change,” he told himself.

The break-in

13 March, 2015 0 Comments

First published in the September 2014 issue of Spotlight

Josh and Kieran sat in Mr Watkins’s back garden eating tomatoes. Neither of them really liked tomatoes, but these were stolen tomatoes from Mr Watkins’s greenhouse, so they were delicious. The high wooden fence hid them from the neighbours.

Mr Watkins was away again — gone to stay with his daughter in Leeds, Josh’s mum had said. They had seen him being helped to the car by his daughter, his sonin- law drumming impatiently on the steering wheel, and the grandchildren fighting in the back.

“We should get my ball back,” said Josh. “The one that landed in his roses.”

“What about my ball? And Liam’s?”

“Yeah, and Dan’s plane. I bet he’s got loads of things in there that he’s taken off kids over the years.”

“Yeah, loads,” said Kieran.

“Charlie reckons Mr Watkins used to be a bank robber and that he’s got loads of stolen money and jewels and stuff hidden in his house,” said Josh. Charlie was Josh’s big brother, almost a grown-up now.

“That’s rubbish. He’s having you on,” said Kieran.

“You saying my brother’s a liar?” said Josh and threw half a tomato at Kieran.

They scuffled for a few moments, before Josh said, “Let’s get my ball back.”

“How?” asked Kieran.

“We walk in and look for it,” said Josh, “and when we find it, we take it. It’s not stealing. It’s my ball. It’s my United one.”

“But even if it’s your ball, that’s burglary,” said Kieran. “We can’t just break into Mr Watkins’s house.”

“We don’t break in, we just walk in through the door. He always leaves a set of keys with my mum in case of emergencies. She’s put them in the cupboard in the kitchen.”

“What kind of emergencies?”

“How should I know? Hang on a minute.”

Josh peered over the garden fence before quickly climbing over and disappearing from view. Minutes later, he was back, holding a set of keys tightly in his fist.

It was strange walking into somebody else’s empty house. It wasn’t a nice feeling at all. “I don’t like this,” said Kieran. “Let’s forget about the stupid ball. You’ve got another one.”

Josh wanted to change his mind as well, but he wished to prove he was braver than Kieran. He liked to think of himself as the leader of their gang of two. “Don’t be a baby. What’s there to be afraid of? All the curtains are closed. Nobody can see us.”

They walked quietly through the darkened downstairs rooms, looking in cupboards and under furniture. “Got it!” cried Kieran. There it was, in a basket by the door, together with half a dozen other balls of different shapes and sizes.

“Great,” said Josh, grabbing it from Kieran. “Let’s look upstairs.”

“What for?” asked Kieran.

“For the jewels and things,” replied Josh.

“Let’s just leave it, can’t we?” But Josh was already halfway up the stairs, so Kieran followed, joining him at the top.

Josh pushed open the door to a dimly lit bedroom. There were cupboards along two walls and boxes piled up between the bed and the window. More boxes, bags and cases could be seen sticking out from under the bed.

Josh knelt down to pull at the handle of an importantlooking briefcase stuck between a cardboard box and a carrier bag. Kieran began to open cupboard doors.

“Bloody hell!” said Josh.

“Wow!” said Kieran.

Each looked around to see what the other had found. In the cupboard shone trophies, cups, shields and medals, all carefully arranged on two shelves.

“This is an FA cup-winner’s medal,” said Kieran.

“And look at this,” said Josh, waving the newspaper cutting he had picked from the pile that lay in the box. “John Watkins, scoring the winning goal for United in the 1948 Cup Final.”

“What? Mr Watkins played for United? Wow! Does that mean he’s really rich? Why does he live round here and not in a big, posh house?” asked Kieran.

“No, Charlie says footballers weren’t all rich in the old days. They just got paid normal wages like everyone else. Look, what do you think?” He placed his United football up on the shelf between two trophies. “Looks great, doesn’t it?”

“Yeah, great!”

“What’s that?” Josh rushed to the window to peer through the curtains. “It’s Mr Watkins. He’s back! Run!”

After quickly shutting the cupboard and pushing the briefcase back under the bed, the boys ran down the stairs, through the house and out of the back door, locking it behind them before jumping over the fence.

Once they felt themselves safe, they collapsed in a breathless heap.

“Where’s your ball?” asked Kieran.

“It’s still in there,” replied Josh, “where it belongs.”

Summer floods

13 March, 2015 0 Comments

First published in the June 2013 issue of Spotlight

Earlier that day, Guy had walked across the bridge after buying his morning paper. He had seen how the river had begun to cover the meadow, making it more of an adventure than usual for the morning dog-walkers. Since then, the rain had fallen steadily on to the soaked earth, filling fields and lower-lying lanes. It had now stopped, but the river was still rising by the hour. After lunch, Guy took his camera and walked off to record the life of the town.

At the riverside water park, where the children had laughed and played in the sunshine just weeks earlier, the fountains were now under water. Guy took pictures of teenagers dancing in the deluge. On the bridge, he photographed water lapping at the high banks protecting the old houses clustered around St Helen’s, the spire of which had seen it all before down the centuries.

Heading out of town, Guy turned down a farm path. He looked up as he heard the distinctive mew of the red kites and watched the sky until he saw them: magnificent birds, once a rare sight in this part of the country. Now it was common to see them flying over fields, parks and gardens, looking for easy pickings.

“Like vultures,” thought Guy as he stared at the pair now circling in the sky ahead of him.

Although he was wearing wellington boots, he had not intended to walk far along the flooded lane. Interested to see what had attracted the kites, he made his way carefully, testing the waters ahead for hidden dangers.

At a curve in the lane lay a picnic area. By one of the two wooden tables stood a small, wet dog. It barked when it saw him.

“Where’s your owner?” asked Guy. Further up the flooded lane, in the direction in which the dog was looking, he spotted a movement in the water — a hand in the air, a hat on a head.

Moving as fast as he could, Guy waded towards the man, whose head and shoulders seemed to rise up from the road. The man’s face was the same grey colour as his hat. Only his head, neck and the tops of his shoulders were showing above the open drain he had stepped into. Putting his hands under the old man’s shoulders, Guy tried to pull him up. The man screamed. “My foot! It’s stuck!” he gasped. As Guy fumbled for his phone, it slipped from his wet hand and disappeared into the murky water.

“I’ll be back shortly,” he told the man and set off as fast as he could back up the lane. Reaching its end, he ran across the bridge and shouted to the teenagers still playing around in the water park.

“There’s an old man. He’s going to drown. Phone police, ambulance, fire engine — Rye Lane — now!” As two of the children took out their phones to call, the other three jumped out of the water and ran past Guy. When he returned to the drain, he found the two boys and the girl there. He could see that the old man was in a bad way, and the water had risen up to his neck.

“Hold him,” the girl ordered Guy. He squatted, placing his hands under the man’s arms.

The girl lay down in the water and pushed her right arm into the drain, fishing around, checking the size and shape. Turning her head, she called: “Hold my legs! Pull me up if I struggle.” With this, she moved slowly forward and down into the drain while the stunned boys held on to her feet. Her head and body disappeared into the water until only her shoes were visible, her friends hanging on desperately. After what must have been just seconds, but seemed much longer, her feet jerked and the boys pulled her up.

Gasping, she sat in the water for a moment while the old man moaned quietly. “No good,” she said. “Need to go back down. Hold tight!” With this, she turned and crawled once again into the churning water, the boys only just having time to grab her feet before she disappeared. She seemed to be gone even longer this time, and when her feet jerked again, Guy shouted: “Get her out, for God’s sake!”

They pulled her out. Her face red, she retched, unable to speak. She waved her arms and pointed at the old man, gesturing: “Pull him up! Pull him up!” The boys leapt to help, and together they were able to lift the man from the water just as two firemen arrived, followed by paramedics.

As they took the old man to a waiting ambulance, Guy looked up to the sky again for the circling red kites, but they were nowhere to be seen.

The big grey man of Ben MacDhui

13 March, 2015 0 Comments

First published in the May 2014 issue of Spotlight

We’ve got one of those.”

I turned my head to see if the voice was talking to me. I was sitting at a bus stop, waiting for the bus that would take me to the foot of Ben MacDhui for a day’s walk on one of Scotland’s wildest mountains. I hadn’t noticed the old man.

He pointed at the newspaper I was reading.

“We’ve got one ofthose,” he repeated.

I looked him up and down: short, with a tough appearance, a white beard.

“You’ve got one of what?” I asked.

“One of those.”

He tapped the headline in the newspaper: “New sighting of yeti.”

“Up there, he is,” he said, and he nodded towards the mountains, still topped with snow, although the summer was already here.

“Tell me more,” I said, trying hard not to smile.

“Saw him with my own eyes,” the old man went on.“Thirty years ago, it was. A Sunday in the early spring. The snow was still deep on the mountains.”

He turned his head and spat on to the road.

“Anyway,” he continued, “I was up there, and I’d got myself a wee bit lost. The wind was getting up, and it wasjust beginning to snow again. Then I heard it.”

“What, the yeti?” I said, eyes wide.

“Not the yeti — and anyway, we don’t call him that round here. No, it was a groaning sound, someone in pain.I followed the sound, and I found him.”

“You found the yeti?” I asked.

“No, not him. Just a man. Lying by a big rock. His eyes were closed. Snow was settling on his clothes and face. I leaned down and put my hand on his shoulder. His eyes opened wide, and he screamed, trying to get away from me, whimpering and waving his arms around. ‘Calm yourself down,’ I said. ‘I’m here to help you, you fool.’”

The old man spat again and continued: “So he started talking to himself. In Gaelic, it was: ‘Am Fear Liath Mòr’— the big grey man, that means. Kept saying it. ‘Where’s the trouble?’ I asked, looking for an injury. I touched his leg, and he howled — broken. He wouldn’t be walking off that mountain.”

“What did you do?” I asked the old man, beginning to find the story interesting.

“Aye, what was I to do? The snow was coming down,the wind was blowing. I tell you, I began to fear for both me and him. I had flares in my rucksack, but there was no point in sending one up in a blizzard. I couldn’t leave the man there to die. So I decided to build a snow hole to keep us safe for the night.”

“A snow hole? You’re joking,” I laughed.

The old man looked me up and down, from my newboots to my new jacket.

“You haven’t spent a lot of time in the mountains,” he said to me.

“You’re right,” I admitted. “Please, tell me more.”

“Well, anyway,” the old man continued, “I found a good spot and started digging. It was tough work, and it was dark when I’d finished, but there it was: an ice cave. So I pulled the man in, lit a couple of candles and closedup the entrance.”

The old man stopped for a moment, and then he leaned towards me. “It was a wild night,” he said. “Thewind was howling like a hungry wolf until…”

The old man’s voice dropped, and I leaned closer.

“Until… in the wee small hours, as the wind dropped, I heard something else out there in the icy dark. First, I heard footsteps crunching on fresh snow; then a deep-throated breathing, and a snuffling of something sniffing the air, sniffing the ground, searching, hunting. Closer it came. The man beside me, who I had thought asleep, began to whimper again. ‘Am Fear Liath Mòr,’ he whispered. Then there was a scuffle and a crack, and something squealed terribly as it died. The wind began to moan again.”

The old man stopped and studied my face. “Well, the morning came, and the sun was shining, so I sent up a flare, and all we could do was wait. I left the man in the snow hole until a helicopter from Dunmarne airbase saw us. They were putting him on a stretcher, when he started muttering in Gaelic again. The paramedic says to me: ‘So you’ve been having fun with the big grey man, have you? Tall as a house, all covered in hair, they say.’”

The old man blew his nose loudly. “Well,” he continued,“after the helicopter left, I started down the mountain.I went past the rock where I’d found him. And there it was.”

“What, the big grey man?” I asked, surprised.

“No, it wasn’t the big grey man. It was the head of a mountain hare, torn from its body. There it was, lying in apatch of red snow. When I saw that, I started to run. I ran down that mountain, and I didn’t stop until I reached the village.”

The old man rubbed his beard.

“Maybe it was just a dog,” I said as I stood up. My bus had arrived.

He grinned. “Maybe. — Anyway, enjoy your day onthe mountain.”

Coming home

13 March, 2015 0 Comments

First published in the March 2014 issue of Spotlight

An early-morning heron rose from the shadows as Frank climbed over the wooden stile into the next field. The bird flapped its large wings slowly and flew in the direction of a church tower in the distance. The red-brick tower was the only part of Tilbury village that could be seen from here.

“You will be going to the village pond,” thought Frank as he watched the heron disappear, “or the lake on the other side of Harding Woods.” Like the people of Tilbury, the local herons didn’t travel very far. They were born here, and they died here, without ever seeing much of the world in between those two events.

Frank walked straight across the field. Ahead, he could see the old gate that would bring him out on to the road. Beneath his old, brown, leather boots, the ground was mostly soft, but it crunched in those places where the mud was still frozen.

As the spring sun rose higher, the land around him was emerging from what he had been told was Britain’s worst ever winter. Beyond these fields, there was still snow on the higher hills that surrounded the valley, but yesterday’s biting north wind had gone now and had been replaced by warmer air flowing in gently from the west.

Once through the gate and on to the road, he stopped to rest for a moment, putting down his khaki rucksack on the wall and taking the weight off his bad leg. As the months went by, it was getting better, but sometimes the pain made him close his eyes and breathe hard for a few seconds. Mostly, though, he just ignored it and got on with the job, did his duty.

He heard a vehicle coming closer from the direction of the village. As it came round the corner and over the Millstream bridge, he could see that it was a post van driven by a young woman. She stopped the van and stared at the weather-beaten face and sun-bleached hair of the stranger for a few seconds, a questioning look on her own face, as though she were trying to remember something. Then she opened the van window, smiled and called out to Frank, “Are you all right?”

He nodded. “Yes, fine. Just resting.”

She nodded in return and drove off down the road.

He lifted the heavy rucksack back on to his shoulders and crossed the bridge, following the road into Tilbury. As he entered the village, he looked up at the sign hanging outside the Rising Sun pub. Although the paint had peeled slightly here and there, the cheerful face of the yellow sun smiled down on him as it always had.

Across the road from the pub, though, the village shop was gone. The old building remained, but the shop itself had become The Village Tea Rooms. He stopped to lookthrough the window. Inside, a man and a young girl were cleaning and polishing.

Frank stopped again outside old Mrs Westcott’s cottage, leaning on the wall of the prettiest garden in the village. The curtains were different: bright and modern, not the rose pattern he remembered. On the lawn were a toy car and a football. And there, a movement of black and orange, a butterfly and then another one, its twin, coming out of their winter hideaway.

He carried on down the high street until he reached Arden Lane. As he took in the two rows of old stone houses, he felt a mixture of excitement and fear. The telegraph pole at the far end of the street marked his destination. Its lines stretched out from the tip, connecting all the houses to each other and to the whole world. Frank stopped when he reached the pole and stared at the quiet house across the road, its curtains still closed and the faded blue door with the brass knocker waiting for him to make himself known.

A noise caught his attention, a twitter that made him look away from the house and up into the sky. Something moved fast, circling and diving. The little blue and cream feathered bird had elegantly curved wings and a long tail that split into two: a swallow, back home after the winter. It had flown up from southern Africa, crossing the Sahara Desert back into Europe, then north to France, making its final journey across the Channel in the last day or two. Resting for a moment, the swallow landed on the telegraph lines to sing to all who might hear it, a fellow traveller safely back home, up on the wires, singing a song of welcome.

Frank raised his hand in greeting to the bird, calling a soft “Welcome home!” before crossing the road and opening the little gate. He walked along the path to the door and raised the knocker for a gentle a-rat-a-tat-tat.

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