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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was still snow on the higher hills that surrounded the valley, but yesterday’s biting north wind had gone now and had been replaced by warmer air flowing in gently from the west.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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