The Way Ahead by Graham Bruce Fletcher
Exercise was crucial. I watched Mum age, almost overnight, when she had her spaniel killed. Euthanased. Put down. “Tell it”, she always said, “exactly how it is.”
She derided the nonsense they spouted when they told us to stay home. If their advisors could enjoy the countryside, so could she.
“If I can’t risk dying of Covid at ninety-eight, why should I stop enjoying life waiting to drop dead of something else?”
It was easy to enlist her as a co-conspirator in keeping her healthy. We took our permitted exercise along the road they’d closed when they built the bypass. We left the fields to folks who didn’t need somewhere flat and level. Went where it was safer because everybody else had long forgotten the old road. No risking Mum getting breathless going uphill or turning an ankle on rutted ground.
It was Spring when we first went. Mid-March. The ancient hedgerows were bare. Only the evergreens up the embankment of the bypass stopped us being seen by the ‘busybodies’ as they drove by on the bypass in their jam-sandwiches.
So far as she was concerned, she’d done her bit for the government; flying in the Air Transport Auxiliary. She wasn’t going to waste time locked-up indoors. We celebrated her ninety-eighth birthday on April the first in the middle of the disused road with a Thermos of tea and a packet of Jaffa Cakes. She joked we should bring a couple of 99 ices next year.
Each day we walked a little further. On Midsummer’s Day we reached the old junction. I remembered cycling there from Junior school. A couple of pigs lived in an ancient stone-built sty at the roadside. I’d stop there, lean my bike against the road sign, and scratch their backs. Now the stonework is strewn across what remains of the side road. The mounting block remains in the verge by the old road, but someone’s prised off the cast-iron mile marker. Probably sold for a fortune to tourists in the antique market down in the town.
Mum folded her jacket to protect her tweed slacks, and sat on the warm stone, whilst I yanked ivy from the old traffic sign. The faded red triangle in a circle over the black and white rectangle proclaimed; “Halt. Major Road Ahead”, studded with little glass reflectors like so many Rowntree’s Fruit Gums. They simply say “Stop” nowadays.
I wondered where the fingerpost had gone. I found it, eventually, fallen amongst a thicket of bramble and nettles, the metal arms fixed as if in rigor-mortis. One limb pointed skywards, with the name of the village that stood down the side road beside the numeral showing how near it had been. The other two names, flat amongst the bramble and undergrowth, remain familiar – the market town from which this road has carried travellers to the place today’s city now stands, since before the days of the Romans, and for thousands of years. Almost nobody remembers the village, lost now beneath the four-lane dual carriageway.
She stood by my shoulder; “Not how it was.” she said.
“It’s just fallen over.” I answered.
Mum explained; “It’s not just the sign, nor the village. Nothing’s the same as when that sign stood here. The places those names promised are gone forever. Who can say how everything’ll change all over again in the future?”
As we returned to the car on that midsummer day, a huge, grey military aircraft thundered low overhead. Mum looked up. “Probably PPE, bound for Brize Norton,” she said, “I remember flying Harvards over here towards Brize in the forties. Nothing’s what it was.”
As the lockdown wore on, sometimes we’d not speak at all. The Red Kites and Buzzards cast silent shadows, hunting for rooks or rabbits. Sparrowhawks hovered over the verges of the new bypass, taking smaller prey. Other times she’d talk, telling me how people used to get on with it. How today’s politicians haven’t the determination to get things done, whatever they say.
As the trees began to shed their crumpling foliage for their hibernation, we picked hazelnuts, sloes and blackberries from the hedgerows. We had to muffle up and walk less far. Mum felt the cold more than I did.
It was late October I took her breakfast in bed and found her dead. It wasn’t expected. Not Covid. We’d walked the previous afternoon. She’d gone to bed as usual, with her customary; “Goodnight, dear”.
I’m glad the virus gave us the summer together. Before, we’d never had the time and freedom for the luxury of constant companionship. Not even when I’d been a kid. It was the bonus of being locked down together. Not having to work, pretending to be her carer, was a gift. In those last months I finally got to know her: how things had been for her. She’d never failed to ‘keep buggering on’ – as Churchill said – when things changed. She’d have enjoyed that 99 ice cream.
Whatever the signposts said, the only certainty is; the way ahead is never predictable.