Third Prize and Joint Local Winner — Kingfisher by Jimmy Lowther


They went this way before. On an old Peugeot and a BSA. Then the canal was a muddy ditch, now it is like new but made to feel old through management of trees and careful planting of reeds. Then the towpath was a wilderness in places.

“Remember this?” she says. “We had to walk this bit.” He does not hear. Already he is yards ahead. His impatience has tempered with the years but still shows. His hearing is much worse.

“I said, Do you remember this?” she says, louder, drawing level.

“What?”

“This bit was a wreck. We had to walk.” He smiles and slows down

It is early but the sunlight is already dazzling and shining on the ripe barley fields and bouncing from the windows of canal boats. She stops to put her shades on and sip some water.

“All right, I’m coming,” she says.

“I didn’t say anything.”

“You didn’t have to. What’s the rush?”

They pass the cafe at the aqueduct where the Somerset Coal Canal joins the Kennet and Avon. It is just a short spur now but once went to Taunton. When they came this way before even the spur was dry and overgrown. Now it is neat and trimmed and there are families eating ice cream and walking dogs.

“There’s a kingfisher,” she says.

“Where?”

But the bright blue flash has already gone.

They follow the old railway line to Bristol. It is a cycleway now and tarmacked for most of the route. At Bitten they stop at the renovated station that pretends it is 1942. They have to queue for a coffee but the steam train rolls through while they are waiting and they lose their place to rush outside and see it. He sighs when she tells him she needs the toilet so he will have to go back to the queue on his own.

“Remember that crow?” she says when he finds her in the garden.

“Yes.”

“It came and sat on your shoulder.”

“It shit on my jacket.” He looks at her. “It wasn’t funny.”

“It was funny,” she says. “It was very funny.”

Further on there is another station that is long abandoned. Only the neo-Gothic facade and the platform remain, standing in the middle of a wood with the sycamores and the hazel trees crowding around and the finches singing it slowly away to nothing. They stop to eat a sandwich and pick around the ruin. What was once a little ticket office gazes out through empty sockets at the space where the line once ran. He stands at the end of the ghost platform like he is waiting for a ghost train. She can see the flesh hanging over his cycling shorts like a good natured mockery. He looks ridiculous and doesn’t care any more than he ever did. When they remount the bikes he puts his helmet in his saddle bag.

“Put that on,” she says.

He makes that impatient face. “I’m not going to fall off.”

“It’s not that,” she says. Then snickers.

“What?”

“You’ll get sunburn on your baldy nut.”

There is a long straight downhill into Bristol through a tunnel where she shouts out his name and laughs until she nearly crashes. He hurtles past her, then has to brake to avoid hitting a pair of youths with a shopping trolley. Then she overtakes him, still laughing.

There are many more cycle paths now. Then you took your life in your hands. Now you can go safely down to Redcliffe from Temple Meads, along the harbourside to Queen’s Square and then out of the city and along the Portway, under the Clifton Bridge and on towards the Severn. The bridge at Pill is busy with motorway traffic but the foot way is wide and on the other side there is another long downhill through peaceful trees with the town laid out below. There is a folk band playing in the garden of the pub and they pull in for a beer.

“Just one,” she says but of course they have two and it is hard to start again.

“I could stay all day,” he says.

“We haven’t got all day. It’s nearly three o’clock.”

“Who’s impatient now?” he says.

North of Pill the way goes through industrial estates and by warehouses but the great suspension bridge is visible now. He is still in front but he seems to be fading. His legs move slower and less certainly. There is something out of synch in his rhythm and his head seems to be down more of the time. She pulls up level with him.

“Do you need to stop?”

They rest under the old bridge. The huge new one is off to their left. It makes this bridge look obsolete. But this is the bridge they crossed when the other one was not even thought of. She studies the lines in his face where no lines used to be.

“Another two miles,” she says, remembering how it was always he that reassured her that there was not much further to go.

Over the bridge and down through the streets of Chepstow they find the B&B. “They haven’t even painted the bloody place,” he says.

She remembers the odd couple that ran the place then with their memories of the war and strict rationing of tea bags. Now it is run by a same sex couple from South Africa and there are fifteen kinds of tea. They take a gin and tonic onto the patio and watch the sun settling over the muddy estuary.

“Can you believe it’s been forty years?” He is still gazing over the water towards the distant second bridge. “We don’t have to go on tomorrow,” she says. “We could stay another night and rest up.”

When he turns round she sees there is no colour in him but his eyes are still bright. “Naw. I’ll be fine. Knee’s a bit sore.”

“Did we see any kingfishers last time?”

“Can’t remember,” he says. “Probably not. They were rare then.”

“They carry spirits don’t they? They make their nests on the sea. From bones. And they carry the spirits of the dead home.”

“So they used to say,” he says.

“All bollocks, I suppose” she says.

“’Course it’s bollocks. They nest in riverbanks and carry little fish.”

She smiles. “Where would home be?” she says.

“What?”

“If a kingfisher carried you home, where would you want it to carry you to?”

He seems to think for a moment. “You don’t half come out with some crap sometimes,” he says.

She snickers. “Is this the best anniversary or what?

It has been forty years since their shoestring honeymoon on an old BSA and a new Peugeot. Then they had borrowed money for one night in a B&B and a long weekend in Crickhowell. Now they can hire a cottage for a fortnight and not even think about the expense. Then they walked and cycled everywhere but now they can hire a car and not even think about it. But they have ridden bicycles all over Europe and wanted to relive this one journey. No cars and no trains. Only the rhythmic peaceful spinning of the wheels.

In the morning they fill up on full English and pastries and toast.

“Can you remember the cricket?” she says.

“What?”

“We stopped at that pub and you wanted to stay and listen to the test match on the radio because Pakistan were nearly all out or something. Remember it was so hot and we asked that woman in the cottage for some water and she only spoke Welsh.”

“She did not,” he says. “That’s a cliché. And it’s nearly racist. She was just a misery guts. And anyway it wasn’t Pakistan. It was the Ashes.”

“Same difference,” she says.

He affects that wounded look. “Nothing’s the same as the Ashes.”

She hands him his helmet and when he makes a face she says, “Yes, you do bloody have to put it on.”

“She did give us some water,” he says.

Near Usk it starts to rain but the summer shower is short and the grass verges smell the fresher for it. He stops to watch a red kite high on a thermal.

“Didn’t used to see them back then. They were rare weren’t they?”

But he does not answer. His eyes seem to have clouded over and his colour has gone again.

“I wouldn’t be anywhere else,” she says. “Anywhere but here. Just us and the bikes and our lives in front of us.” She starts to fill up with tears but then he smiles and seems suddenly solid again. As solid as he always was. For a moment the extra flesh falls off his face and his dark hair is back and she sees the hard angular man he was; still is, under the years.

“Time’s been kind to you, fatty,” she says. “Relatively.”

“Who you calling fatty?” he says. “All this is bought and paid for.” And he grips the smallish roll of fat on his midriff.

“Come on,” she says. “Nearly there.”

At Abergavenny they look for but can not find the tea room in the high street where they counted their money and had a pot of tea and two scones. Perhaps it was the one that is now a computer shop. Or maybe the one that now serves burgers and kebabs. There are more upmarket food shops now as well. Vegan food and wholefood and organic food. Restaurants boast local beef and even local wine. The town looks like it takes more pride in itself than it did then. They stop at a pub for lunch and watch the world, or at least the town, go by through the bay window. He unfolds a map and nearly knocks their drinks over. With his head down she remembers how his hair always flopped over his eyes. No matter what the style was, he was always five years behind it.

“What are you having?” she says.

“Lasagne,” he says.

“You don’t fancy the haddock?”

He sighs. “Just order the two things you want. I’ll have what you don’t want when it arrives.”

She smiles. She thinks, you were never perfect but I don’t remember you once putting yourself first. “I wouldn’t trade a single day,” she says.

The last few miles are hard. She is tiring and her legs burn. He peddles along in front for a little while longer, drifting in and out of clarity. She reaches the little lane that goes uphill from the main road to where the cottage still stands, though now it is called a chalet. She leans her bike against a low wall and looks out over the Beacons as a squall darkens the sky.

“Can you remember?” she says. “We went up that hill.” She points across the valley. “What’s it called? There’s an old hill fort half way up. God, didn’t it rain that day? We thought we were lost, do you remember? You said, we weren’t lost; we just didn’t quite know where we were.” For a minute she stares over the valley as the rain lashes her face. “Pen Cerrig-calch,” she says. “That’s it. I’m probably still pronouncing it wrong.”

The owner sees her from the kitchen window and comes out, extending a hand. “You’re early,” she says. “We weren’t expecting you ’till five.”

“New bike,” she says.

The owner hands her the keys then shows her around the chalet. “You said on the phone you were here before?”

She nods. “Many years ago. On honeymoon. It’s changed.”

“Well, I’m in awe,” says the owner. “Cycling all that way. At your… sorry, I didn’t mean…”

She smiles.

She uses the shower and then lays out the supplies from the saddlebags. Pasta and sauce from a dry packet tonight. Tomorrow she will cycle into town and stock up on fresh food. She lays two places at the table and lights a single candle and waits for the pasta to cook.

She drinks a glass of wine in the kitchen while the rain sings against the window panes. She sees her reflection in the blank glass with the candle fluttering behind her. One last time she sees him. He is at the table, rearranging the cutlery and placing a rose between the plates with his mop of dark hair hanging over his eyes. Just for a moment everything is in front of them once again.

“I love you, I love you, I love you,” she says. “I miss you, I miss you, I miss you.”

Jimmy Lowther is a local author, from Bradford on Avon in Wiltshire, who also won a prize in the competition a few years ago.

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