By: John E Caulton
Jed rides the bike down the hill. The breeze freshens his face. His jacket and trousers flap like bunting in the slipstream. As he speeds down the gradient his eyes moisten and small tears flick behind him. He grips the handlebars tight and skilfully manoeuvres the bike around the potholes, trying to avoid an accident.
Once he nears the village, he slowly brakes and comes to a stop in the square. He can’t recall the last time he was here, but the place looks pretty much the same as he’s memorised it. The post office still stands on the roundabout. As usual, elderly people sit on benches outside the pub, drinking halves and playing dominoes. The library is closed, of course, because it’s Wednesday. And the market clock, after all these years, is still five minutes slow.
Pedalling without much effort, he descends further down the road, passing the Baptist church and onwards to his parents’ house. As expected, they’re both sat on the old, rickety chairs in the well-tended garden. A third, empty chair is placed between them. They stare at him with vacant expressions. From the pavement he shouts, ‘It’s me, Jed! I’ve got some place to go but I won’t be long – I promise!’
Jed free-wheels a little further until he reaches his old friend’s home. He sees Harry and his faithful dog and thinks that neither appear a day older. Harry throws a stick. ‘Go Lad, fetch it! That’s it, good dog!’ The jolly game is repeated and repeated until it seems to Jed it’ll never end.
Jed leaves them to their game and makes his way to the last building on the hill. He leans the bike against the two-up, two-down. Just as he’s plucking up the courage to knock on the door, it crashes open and two excited children spill out onto the pavement, chased by a familiar looking man, pretending to be a monster. As the group disappear around the corner a woman steps out, smoking a cigarette, chuckling to herself.
As she turns her head, she sees Jed and her happy face turns into a frown. Her white dress begins to turn red and her blonde hair becomes auburn. She takes a deep drag and blows several rings towards him and a cloud of smoke envelopes his head. However, the odour is not that of tobacco but the distinct, recollected scent of the woman.
When the fumes clear, she is gone and the house is a smoking ruin. Jed gets back onto his bike, puts it into a high gear and heads back up the hill.
He’d like to tell Harry about what’s just happened with Dorothy, but as he nears his house the dog races across the road, barking, snarling and attempting to bite the rear tyre. Unnerved, Jed wobbles on the bike and only finds relief when Harry calls the dog off. Jed watches as Harry pats the dog. ‘Well done, Lad. Good dog!’ Then he turns to Jed and sneers, ‘You’d better be on your way, Stranger. It doesn’t seem that you’re welcome around here!’
By the time Jed returns to his parents’ garden only a solitary chair remains. Weeds and tall grasses stand where the flowers once grew. He drops the bike at the gate and strides up the path towards the house. He walks in through the open door and calls, ‘Hello, it’s only me, Jed. I’m back, as I promised!’ There’s no reply and, as he goes from monochrome room to monochrome room, he notices there is no evidence of his past presence. His old bedroom is bare, his music stand and violin have been removed from the study and his face has vanished from the family portrait hanging over the fireplace. Back in the hallway, he feels relief at finding his old rain mac hanging on a peg, but is dismayed to discover both his parents’ coats have gone.
Suddenly, he remembers it’s Wednesday and his parents have probably gone for their habitual game of dominoes. So, alighting his bike, he climbs the hill again. On his way, he notices the Baptist church has become a food bank and upon his arrival at the square he becomes further disorientated – the post office is now a charity shop and the pub a supermarket. The library appears to be open, so it cannot be Wednesday anymore. He stands beneath the market clock, looking this way and that way for his parents, but to no avail. As he checks the time against his wrist watch he finds the market clock is now five minutes fast. Nothing, it seems, is as it once was.
Summoning up his remaining energy, Jed leaves the village behind and attempts the summit. Concentration fails against exertion and he steers the tyres into many dints -the hollows seem to be seeking him out, as though the road itself is attempting to puncture his progress. The going gets tougher and tougher and, as he slowly ascends, his face reddens and his lungs feel fit to burst. But just when his leg and arm muscles seem as though they’ll fail him, Jed reaches the top.
He breathes deeply and wipes the sweat from his brow. From this high position, he observes the village but can hardly pick out any details. Evening is drawing in and a thick mist already hides the buildings and streets.
Realising he still has a considerable way to get back from where he came, Jed turns his bike in the opposite direction and prepares to push off. He sees the land before him is flat, without any inclines. He suddenly feels thankful for this – so very thankful.