When he stepped from the train, there was still a heat in the air. He could smell the fields, and the soil and as he looked across the platform he was sure he could see his father walking up to the station to meet him. But like everything else in his life, they were all gone, a long time ago.
He’d been back for his father’s death, of course, and he had thought about all the things they would say to each other in the final hours – but his father had slipped away with only a smile and quiet squeeze of his son’s hand.
He lifted his rucksack over his shoulder and headed down the stairs to Station Road. Things were still very much the same. The road was a little newer, and the hedges looked a little different from what he remembered, but it was still home. In the field he could imagine his mother waving back from all those years ago. Smiling, and alive, not touched by the bad ending.
He could see a light in the window of the Rectory. There would be a new vicar living there now – one he didn’t know. He had lived through three vicars, and all of them had helped him at difficult times in his life. Whatever was said, the village needed a church and a vicar. It was somewhere to be thought of as special.
As he turned the corner, he held his breath. There was the Old George – with maybe a little more painted makeup, a little more front but still the same old place. He and his pals had drunk there, perhaps a little earlier than the law would have allowed but that was life in a small village. There had been a family who had owned it for as long as he could remember. It was easy to forget, as a child running in and out of the place, that it was someone’s home as well as a bar.
As he passed by, there was a couple of walkers sitting enjoying an ale, and so he stopped and watched. The Old George had been inviting folks to sit and rest for a long, long time now; the farmers, the bikers, the musicians, the Morris dancers, all had sat and supped; all had talked about their lives and loves, all had discussed their troubles – all were gone now.
The church gate was still as he had remembered that day when it had been decked with flowers for his sister’s wedding. Her body lay in the church yard now – it had done for some seventeen years.
He turned past Church Cottages and into Church Street – he was sure he remembered a shop in that street, but his memory came and went these days. It was hard to be sure of what had been, and what was the tainted memories of an old man.
As he walked down the street, he could see the dying sun reflecting on the river, and it made him feel the way it always had. It made him feel warm inside, just like a good whisky. He had sat by the river, man and boy, and it had been the one constant in his life.
There were two children trying to catch fish from the bridge, just like he had done back then, and like him, the kids were pulling up empty hooks. But it was the comradeship, the feeling of safety, the feeling of a village watching over you while you fished that had kept him happy as a child. Nowhere else in the world had he ever felt as safe and happy as he had on those days as a boy sitting on the bridge – fishing.
The sun had seemed warmer and brighter back then. Probably another trick of his old mind. He turned to look back at where the Rising Sun pub had been. Some nights he would sit by the river waiting on his father to come out of the ‘Sun and bring him a lemonade.
“Cheers, dad,” he’d say and his dad would ruffle his hair. Just to do that once again, he thought – just once.
There were folks eating outside the King’s Arms – a new generation of people from London and all the areas in between, having a day in the country. That was the village’s life blood – visitors, it kept the pubs and the world turning.
The school – ah, the school. That was where his happy, happy, childhood had been formed – where his friendships had been forged. It had been the best of days and nothing in his later life was ever as brilliant.
He turned the corner into the High Street – the Royal Oak pub, where his grandparents had met their friends on a Friday night, was a beautiful private house now. He supposed that people didn’t meet in pubs anymore, the way they once did, there were other ways to socialise now. The Oak had been the first pub he had been taken to, and it had been by his granddad who had bought him his first beer. Boy, it had tasted good, and he licked his lips like he had done all those years ago.
Up ahead, he could see the Two Brewers. It had changed, it was a sophisticated bar/restaurant now, back then it was where all the bad boys and girls had hung out. They weren’t really bad, just young people trying to get a handle on life and enjoying themselves in the process.
As he continued along, he noticed some new houses and some revived old ones nudging the High Street. The Co-operative shop had gone – that was where his mother had worked, and his grandmother. It had been an exciting place to hang about, especially at Christmas. He could still remember the smells of that place. The wonderful, beautiful smells.
The allotments were still on the right, still bursting with colours, and plants and love. As he got to the top of Crown Road, it all came rushing back; his pals, the games, the running up and down the road – they were the best, the very best, of times.
The Crown pub hadn’t changed, either. This was where he had met the girls and his buddies in his older days. It was a beautiful pub inside and out, and as he thought back, and although his face was sporting a smile, there was still a warm tear on his cheek.
Perhaps the saddest thing is going back, going home and finding that it has changed all too much – but not this place, coming home to this place was a pleasure. It was a village that had changed little, sure the people were different, and some of the buildings were painted brighter or had been pulled down – but the village was still the village.
He thought he might head over to the school field and look at place where he had scored that goal – the one which folks had talked about for months. He remembered how everyone in the Royal Oak had bought him a beer because of it. He had played for the village football team but had dreamed of playing, one day, for a big London club. It wasn’t to be.
There is a saying that if you want to give God a laugh, tell him what your plans are. Nothing had worked out the way he’d hoped, but he had been luckier than most folks – he had known a place of love, life and safety. He had the happiest days of his existence in this village and perhaps the saddest days too – but folks had rallied around – everyone had helped, and in the end he had moved on and moved away.
As he walked towards the school field, he stopped and sat awhile on a bench outside the village hall. There were worse places to have lived, he thought. He looked over at the little village he had called home, and then he wept. Wept buckets.
For everything and everyone.
bobby stevenson 2017