Jim Fletcher is fed up. He goes for a walk and stumbles upon a magical place that makes he reappraise his life.
Jim Fletcher took off. He'd had enough. Working too hard, too long, for too little. Running low on energy, enthusiasm. He was worn out. Sporting a week's stubble. Yesterday's clothes still on. His head felt like a sinkful of washing up. Body, like a rusty ironing board left out for the tip. Heart, an iron whose fuse had blown. The only things he was creasing were his wrinkles – not so much crow's feet as a whole wing.
So he pulled on his battered old trainers, picked up his sun hat – the stub of a Panama – and slammed the door behind him, heading for the Heavens.
The Heavens were the one good thing about living where he did – the butt end of a town that had passed its sell-by-date two centuries ago. Everything in Straddle-Edge looked worn out. The people, the buildings, the cars, the shops – but there was one placed where you could still feel a pulse.
He passed through the pocket park with a sigh of relief. It bubbled with gentle noise – children's laughter, dogs barking, birdsong, somewhere someone mowing the lawn. 'Fetch! Sit! Stay!' someone shouted, trying to train an unruly puppy, but Jim smiled a thin smile and kept on walking. He was slipping the leash.
He passed through the iron gate at the far end of the park, passed the sobering ranks of gravestones, standing to attention, awaiting final inspection – like rows of plants in pots, stone labels sticking out showing no signs of life. God's potting shed had seen better days. A kissing gate smacked its lips as he passed through – down a sun-peppered tunnel of trees. Suddenly the view opened out – and what a view! Jim never tired of seeing it. The Heavens – tucked away in the folds of the deep Cotswold valleys. A best kept secret – apart from the odd walker or jogger – and that's the way he'd like it to stay. It had served as his sanctuary since he'd first stumbled upon it – moving to Straddle-Edge five years ago. Downsizing was the phrase – his partner had insisted – leaving the City and all his friends behind – until she had downsized their relationship as well, until he was just a 'good friend'. One she forgot to call up or visit. One she avoided in town, turning her head if he caught her eye walking down the high street as she sat outside her favourite coffee shop, chatting to her green friends, the 'Martians' he called them.
He nearly stumbled as he stepped across the stream. That stepping stone – the one that wobbled – always caught him out. And he always intended to fix it, one day.
A phalanx of rooks took off, complaining vigorously – as he ascended out of the shady dell onto the bank of flowers – yellow and white – a constellation of daisies, buttercups and dandelions. Yet even this site failed to stir him. His heart was too heavy to see their beauty.
He flopped down on the trunk of an old oak that had blown down a couple of years ago and sighed.
Where was his life going? He had turned forty but there was little of substance to show for it. A part-time job; rented house; diminishing savings. Distant friends and receding hair-line. The only thing that was expanding these days was his waist-line – that local was a little too convenient. that local ale too tempting. Most nights he ended up staggering home. When was the last time he fell asleep sober? When was the last time he had wanted to?
Suddenly, an unexpected sound – laughter. A child's. Again, nearer. A fleeting image – a blur of bright colours. Pig tails. White knee socks and shiny-buckled shoes.
A little girl – on her own? Would her parents let her play by herself out here? In this day and age? She was a fast mover, but still.
'You shouldn't be here – all on your own.' Feigning concern, or was that a hint of annoyance in his voice? This was his place, his peace – which she was disturbing.
The laughter was getting annoying. And would she quit running around here, there, every-where – it was starting to irritate him!
A splash. A cry. Had she fallen in? Jim leapt up – tried to see. Something bright floating down stream – a ... child's shoe with a shiny buckle on it! He burst through the trees – wading into the water, his feet sending up clouds of silt. The cool water seeped into his shoes, his socks. No sign of her – but a minute ago he could have sworn...?
The laughter came from the bushes.
'Why you...!' He thrashed through the thicket with a stick, beating it, sending up butterflies, bits of bracken, pollen – which made him sneeze. He tripped on a root – fell and banged his head.
Groaning, he picked himself up off the mulch, the squashed mat of stinging nettles, and brushed himself down as best he could. And then, groggily, he stumbled out – into the light. The meadow opened out before him – a stream formed a lazy line with its trickling cargo, dividing the swathe of deep grass in two. An audience of trees encircled this green amphitheatre, which seemed poised, expectant. There was a stillness here, a peace – like he hadn't experienced in a long while. His head hurt – it felt as though there was a little blood, certainly a bruise. He stooped by the stream and dabbed his temple with the cool water. It was soothing.
He sat on the grass pulled off his shoes and socks to let them dry in the warm sun.
He hadn't done that in years.
It felt good to be here. Pity he hadn't no one to share it with. His partner never made it this far. It was out of mobile range.
No signal here.
Jim lay back in the grass – just for a little nap. He felt so relaxed here. His eyelids grew heavier. The birdsong, the trickle of water, the warm sun on his skin.
He woke up – startled by the popping of a champagne cork – he looked over – there was a couple, having a picnic, laughing, full of life. The man poured the champagne into flutes and raised a toast. The woman smiled. They kissed over the glasses. Bubbles tickled her nose and made her laugh – a sound like the brook.
The couple didn't seem to notice him – they seemed lost in their own dream.
They reminded Jim of someone, of a time when he had felt such happiness...
He turned to another sound – two, three young lads, thwacking their way through the long grass with sticks. Jim groaned – yet they seemed from another age – not the feral hoodies of today. Three friends going for a walk in nature, talking excitedly about the latest movie, TV show, comic or band.
The barking of a dog made Jim turn again – a young boy taking a favourite pet for a walk, lost in daydreams, the speechless delight of nature.
A smile broke on Jim's face. Once he had been content with such simple pleasures.
When did life get so complicated?
He looked around. The Heavens were filling up, yet there seemed room enough for all – even a young family, bringing their gaggle of children with them to play, to have a picnic – puppy in tow. The mother brought out the various provisions: a Thermos, sandwiches in silver foil, bags of crisps, fruit, bowls, beakers for squash – and placed them almost ritualistically on the picnic cloth, while the father dandled the child – the youngest boy – on his knee. The older two played, or fought, while the puppy yapped, content to chase the tennis ball until the end of time.
Jim watched on, chin starting to wobble, as a tear leaked down the side of his face.
The girl appeared – this time she did not run but came up to him and gently held his hand, as he collapsed into hoarse sobbing.
'Thank you,' he finally said.
The girl looked at him with eyes like the sun – she held out a buttercup.
'Let me see.' Her voice was like sunlight.
'If you like butter or not...'
Jim wiped his eyes; shrugged, held up his chin.
The girl placed the flower underneath – it tickled his Adam's apple.
'Yes!' she seemed pleased.
'What is this place?' he asked, voice raw.
'But it's not like the Heavens I know – well, it is and it isn't. These people – they don't seem ... quite real.'
Jim watched as two young lovers, chased each other across the meadow – the young woman feigned a cry of terror as she allowed herself to be hunted down, and 'caught' in her beau's embrace.
'They're buttercup moments.' She slowly spiralled the small flower in her hand – catching the clean light in the golden cup. 'They don't go away.' She skipped around him – they're all stored up here ... in the Heavens. Each moment of happiness is saved. The meadows remember.'
Jim gazed at the various groupings – none stayed in focus for too long. 'I've forgotten ... so much.'
'Things are never forgotten. They are kept safe...' She struggled to find the right analogy. '... like in a bank.'
'What's your name?' he asked.
'Nice to meet you, Daisy.' Jim sat up, suddenly feeling brimming with energy. 'I must get back now.' He started to pull on his socks – now dry. 'There's alot of catching up I have to do. Old friends to contact...' He inspected the hole in one of his socks, laughed at himself. 'Jobs that I've put off for a long time.' He laced up his trainers. 'New skills to learn; hobbies to take up. That garden needs some TLC.' Jim gazed around at the green full of people. 'Neighbours to spend time talking to. Offers of help. Invitations. Taking the time of day to appreciate where I live.' He took in a view with a satisfied sigh. 'Straddle-Edge isn't such a bad place. Perhaps that knock on the head done me good! I feel like I'm suddenly awake after a long sleep.' He got up, waved. 'Goodbye, Daisy. Thank you.'
'Don't forget the Heavens – they won't forget you.'
And the girl was gone. A buttercup floated gently onto the sward where she had stood.
Jim picked it up and walked home.
Copyright Kevan Manwaring 2011