THE LONG ROAD HOME
by Diane Simkin
A cold sun shone on the day the old man made his decision. He left the hostel straight after breakfast and set out to walk the twenty odd miles to the place that used to be his home. It had been snowing on and off for over a week, and the once green fields were transformed into a white stillness. He carried nothing and fastened the collar of his mackintosh with a safety pin. But the inquisitive wind still poked frosty fingers through the gaps.
At first his legs carried him along quite briskly, but when he came to the lonelier lanes the ice was undisturbed and his smooth-soled feet less sure of their grip. But the old man’s heart was happy in the knowledge of a destination. He whistled a little, until cold air on decaying teeth stung him into silence. The sun shone blindingly, but its beams were ice and gave no comfort.
He thought about the cottage where he’d lived with his wife and two children. He’d owned a car in those days and travelled to work daily. Between the town and his home lay twenty miles of heather-hung wilderness. He remembered the love of nature that had led him to live in such a remote place.
He plodded on, hour after hour, mile after mile, making slow progress through the ice and snow. He could feel no sensation in his toes but his hands, buried deep in tattered pockets, were still warm. His reddened nose ran constantly but he ignored it. He viewed the whiteness around him, the frozen trees, the drifts at the side of the lane, the tracks of small animals – it was beautiful, but deadly too if he didn’t reach shelter before nightfall.
His feet were balls and he walked on them like a circus performer, skilfully negotiating the slippery, ice-covered surfaces. He stopped to look up at the heavens. A grey stillness frowned down as the shy sun slid away to hide behind a rising mist. The breeze became stronger and the ice harder, but he had walked as far many times. His aching body was a familiar friend and he was not unduly concerned for it.
As his tired legs toiled on, his mind wandered. He contemplated his steam-like breath, freezing as it left his nostrils. His sodden feet tramped in well-learned rhythm and his blood was warm, though his skin shivered. With his frozen beard he felt like an explorer, lost for many years in the arctic wastes, returning from a believed grave to the welcoming arms of his rejoicing family. They loved him. They would be waiting. He was certain. His weary mind knew of no roads, only destinations. He had never known where his roads were leading or why he walked them.
The sky had turned from grey to purple, and from purple to near black. It was almost dark, he was almost home. Just one more corner and he could collapse into the loving arms of his forgiving wife. His pace slowed as he tried to formulate the words he would use to greet her, to explain. He imagined his boys as he had left them, scabby knees below their short trousers. When the door opened to his knock they would kiss him and call him Daddy.
He rounded the bend and there was the gate in the hedge. He fumbled with the latch. Why were there no lights? His eyes struggled to penetrate the gloom, but no house shape broke the uniformity of the sky. He tripped on something and bent to see what it was – a brick. As he moved stumblingly forward his worn-out boots encountered more. All that was left of his treasured memories was bricks and rubble. The house had gone. For several despairing minutes he was paralysed by shock. His brain wouldn’t take it in. He had always believed that, whatever else might change, this weathered cottage, his haven, his refuge from the storm, would still be here.
When at last reality kicked in he felt the pangs of panic. Thirty miles ahead lay nothing but wilderness, twenty miles back was the town. His body shivered with cold and fear and he cried. He wept all the tears of his suffering years until his weeping gave way to anger, anger to sadness, and he wept again. There would be one chance only of survival. He must walk back to the town.
His feet carried him automatically as the light, silver snowflakes began to fall. His mind slipped away again to far forgotten summers. Long, warm days with laughing children and a loving woman. He craved those times again but he had shunned them – why oh why? – for the punishing road.
The wind began to scream and the snow fell harder and heavier on the old man’s paper mackintosh. He knew now that he must find shelter or die. He strained his eyes to search the savage landscape. To his left he thought he could see a more solid shape standing out against the whirling snowflakes. He dragged his leaden legs from the track only to sink into a drift. The flesh around his thighs tingled from its anger. The cold was intense but he paid it no heed as, eyes fixed, he waded through the white ocean towards his salvation.
It was the burned out shell of an abandoned car. There were no seats, no wheels, doors or windows, but it offered a degree of shelter. He forced his unfeeling body into the decaying hulk and collapsed onto the corroded floor.
The old man’s mind fell fast from the present as easily as a baby sleeps, and he dreamed. The summer meadows welcomed him. His shouting, happy children waved. His beautiful, young wife called to him. She held out her hands and he ran towards her.
* * * * * * *
It was three days later when the old tramp’s body was found by playing children. Two policemen, sent out from the town, stood in the snow looking down at the pathetic heap of rags.
“Used to live round here, didn’t you?” one said to the other, to make conversation while they waited for the ambulance.
“Yeah, in an old cottage down the lane there. They pulled it down years ago – good thing too, it was a right dump.”
The old man’s scarecrow head was turned towards them and the first policeman bent down for a closer look.
“Strange,” he said, “he looks a bit like you. Not missing any relatives, are you? He could almost be your father.”
“Fat chance,” laughed the other. “My Dad died years ago when I was still in short pants. Gran told me, after Mom had gone off to America with her new boyfriend. Don’t really remember him myself. He was a bit of a waster by all accounts, couldn’t settle down to anything. Always going on about freedom, Gran said.”
The first policeman nodded his head at the tattered corpse.
“Didn’t do this one much good, did it?”