I wrote this story as a submission to the Bristol Short Story competition and the Scottish Arts Club Short Story competition. It did not make the long list for either, and now that I am over the disappointment I can share it with you.
It is a very special story drawn from a real-life experience.
I tend to research the details in my stories and I include little bits of symbolism that become the golden thread throughout the narrative. Names of characters are chosen for their meaning, as are the plants and trees featured. I love details.
I hope you enjoy reading it.
They walked in peaceful silence, her small companion’s gloved hand nestled trustingly in hers. The air was so cold it felt brittle on her face. Occasionally, the crisp crunch of the boy’s red wellingtons on a frozen puddle was the only sound announcing their presence.
It was a clear morning. The memory of last night’s frost still glistened on the skeletal hedgerows. With a slight shiver, she folded the collar of her coat against the February chill. A sigh escaped her lips—her warm breath a fleeting vapour. Within seconds, a mere memory. The bones of a shabby cottage came into view. It was much like any of the other cottages dotted along the country lane, but for the presence of an immense yew tree, its gnarled branches held aloft like an ancient guardian.
The sudden snap of a twig in the mossy, damp undergrowth beneath the yew, drew her attention. She gazed groundward—a robin—recently fledged, dull brown feathers hopping along. Fearless, its beady eyes seemed to examine them quizzically.
‘A baby robin in February!’ She exclaimed. ‘And all alone. It would be a miracle if you survive. Poor wee thing.’
Miracles. There would be none here today.
Sensing that he was being ignored, the boy tugged insistently on her hand, rewarding her attention with a lopsided, snot-covered smile, his blue almond-shaped eyes twinkling mischievously.
‘Too cold to be daydreaming out here, Noah. Let’s knock. Get inside where it’s warm, eh, my boy?’
Flecks of blue paint stuck to her bobbly gloves as she knocked on the tired door. A shambling step within held the promise of relief from the cold. Reluctantly, the stubborn lock gave way to the scraping insistence of a key.
‘Reverend.’ A voice like gravel. ‘I’ve been expecting you.’ A sudden smile took life on the weather-beaten features as the small boy peeped shyly at him from behind the woman’s black coat.
‘Hello, Fergus.’ She stumbled over her words. ‘My son… the babysitter cancelled. I had to bring him with. He won’t be any trouble.’
The old man shook his head, ‘you’re alright, Reverend, the lad can sit here by the fire. I can do with a bit of company.’
‘How is she, Fergus? Any change?’
Shoulders bowed. He was a tired man in need of relief. ‘She hasn’t eaten in days. I can’t even get her to drink a bit of water. She’s just hanging on. Always was a fighter, my Nell. I thought, maybe if you could pray with her…?’ What remained unsaid, hung naked in the air between them.
‘Of course,’ she nodded, taking his trembling hands in hers. Desperate to give the old man hope, but knowing she had none to give. Times like these her dog-collar seemed to expose her worn faith. For Fergus and Nell, the season for hope was long gone. ‘I’ll go through and sit with her. Say a prayer.’
The old man nodded at her and shuffled to the sink to fill a slightly-battered kettle with water. ‘I’ll put the kettle on, then, make us some tea, eh, Noah? And a biscuit would be just the ticket today.’ Smiling at the boy, he patted the seat of a rocking chair near the kitchen window. The boy scrambled onto it, beaming a satisfied toothy smile as the chair started rocking back and forth.
The woman, now divested of the encumbrances of winter—coat, hat, gloves, boots—turned towards the doorway. Her stockinged feet cold on the flagstones, she padded gently towards the bedroom at the far end of the dimly-lit hallway. Reaching the entrance, she paused and drew in her breath. As if to inhale courage from deep within.
The muted strains of a cello concerto were playing somewhere in the room. Elgar. Faded lace curtains at the window were open wide allowing the pale wintery light to dance gently on the bed quilt. The figure in the bed so slight. So still. Nell. Already, it seemed as if she were waiting on her passage home. Not quite ready to go, but almost… Waiting.
Gently the woman folded herself into the deep armchair beside the bed—enveloped by years of worn comfort. Someone had placed a bone china jug of sweet violets on the nightstand. Fergus. The handle had a crack and the gilt had rubbed off in places, but the fragrance of the delicate purple flowers was sweet and smelled like spring. A defiant sign of life.
‘Hello, Nell. It’s me,’ she whispered, ‘I’ve come to see how you are. It’s cold outside today. I saw a young robin. Fancy that, eh? Just hopping about in the undergrowth. Early for robins, I think.’ Softly she let the words fall from her tongue. Like a fragile offering to her friend. I see you. You’re not forgotten. Reaching for Nell’s hand, she gently stroked the paper-thin skin with her thumb. Skin barely covering the bones of once-proud fingers now cruelly twisted with age.
‘Shall I read to you? A poem, or a psalm? Psalm 23? That was always… is, your favourite, not?’
Up, down, up, down the frail chest rising and falling to its own rhythm. Breaths so shallow they were almost imperceptible. Eyes closed to this world. Life, barely there. Just waiting.
It was as she reached for the dog-eared bible just behind the jug of violets, that the boy suddenly appeared next to her. Startled, she jumped up, took his hand ready to guide him from the room. Ready to shield him from the starkness of impending death. There was too much life oozing from his little body. It felt wrong, here. In this place. But the boy resisted and with a stubborn shake of his head, lips puckered determinedly, he shuffled right up to the edge of the bed. His face so close to Nell’s that their noses almost touched.
A sharp intake of breath from the doorway. Fergus.
The woman looked over her shoulder at the old man. His face was grey. Fatigue. Shock. Probably both. His eyes fixed on the scene playing out before him.
The boy was stroking Nell’s cheek with a chubby hand that still carried traces of the shortbread he had been eating earlier. A pale crumb stuck to the velvety skin under her left eye.
A hush fell over the room.
And then, her voice a raspy whisper, ‘You’ve come… I knew you would.’ Her breath came shallow. One last effort, ‘my boy…’
The boy’s hand gently fell to the quilt.
‘Come, Noah.’ The woman, hands resting on her son’s small shoulders, stepped back as Fergus, with raw tears finding their way down leathery cheeks, slowly took his place next to the bed where his entire life lay.
It was much later, after Donald MacLaine from the undertakers had been, and the boy had woken from an exhausted nap in her arms, that Fergus had carefully placed the black and white photograph of the boy, on the kitchen table in front of her. The corners rubbed bare from years of desperate longing.
‘We had a son. Over the years we had given up hope of ever having children, and then when Nell was almost forty-five years old, our Ewan arrived.’ He glanced away at the boy happily rocking back and forth once more in the old rocking chair. ‘He also…’ meeting her gaze with a tired smile, ‘He also had Down Syndrome, but that didn’t matter to us. Never was a child loved more. He never left Nell’s side. He was the greatest gift we could have ever wished for. Nell adored him.’ His voice started shaking. Tears fell onto the smiling image of his little boy. A child; frozen in time. ‘We were so happy, until one winter, he fell ill. Some sort of chest infection, they said. He died that winter, and so did a part of my Nell. He was only five-years old. She never got over his death.’
His gaze came to rest once more on the young boy seated there in his kitchen, as his heart remembered another boy from another time. ‘She was waiting for him. She was waiting just for him to come and fetch her.’
That afternoon, as the sun caressed the horizon, the woman and the boy made their way home. A sudden shaft of light broke through the branches of the yew tree. And there, bathed in the last rays of the sun, was the young robin. He was no longer alone. A flash of crimson revealed the presence of an adult robin, perched in one of the lower branches.
‘You’ve found your mum,’ the woman whispered, ‘all is well here, little one, fly home now.’