Contemporary Fiction Inspirational

I watched the English landscape unravel itself as the train sped towards London. My old city awaited my return with indifference I thought, but it felt good to allow myself to be drawn by its pull and I let memory bear my fear.

               I walked from the station to Southwark Park for no other reason than to allow myself the luxury of remembrance. It had been thirty five years, slightly more than half my life. I avoided the places where I'd been happiest.

               The queue, for me, began under the branches of an ancient Horse Chestnut. I pressed my palm against the age of its trunk and imagined that it wished me well.

               There were crowds behind me now and I stood looking skyward hoping for the clouds to form some sort of shape that might tell me a tale, or remind me of something poignant, or something like that. But the clouds stood still.

               I moved forwards, step by slow step, and kept a distance from the lady in front of me who dabbed the corners of her eyes with folded handkerchief. I watched her and wondered whether to offer a word of comfort, but I had a sadness of my own to contemplate. And there I was, wrapped up in grief but happy for the experience to come.

               I moved with the queue, often four or five swift steps at a time, sometimes more. I noticed some pebbles on a wall that had been arranged in the shape of a heart, somebody had drawn three kisses underneath. I heard slow thuds of music from headphones somewhere behind me and a child's laughter. An aeroplane flew overhead and left a melting trail in the blue sky. The air was still but expectant.

               I spoke to the man behind me and we talked of life, death and the afterlife. It felt strange to share such intricacies with somebody I'd only just met but it felt right somehow. We were comfortable with it.

               The queue moved past the river and I watched a little fishing boat sail under a bridge. A pair of gulls soared high and disappeared over some warehouse roofs, I could still hear them shriek and cry. The lady in front of me turned and smiled, I smiled back and dared to ask if she was okay. She said she was fine but I could see tears in her eyes. I asked where she'd come from and she said she'd caught the train from Norwich and had left home at 4.30 in the morning to make sure she got a good place in the queue. I said I'd come from Plymouth and she told me about her mother who had been evacuated near there during the war.

               We moved quickly for a short while and I could hear the man behind me wheeze slightly as he tried to keep up. I asked if he was all right and he nodded as he took an inhaler from his jacket pocket. I thought I could detect a slight sulphurous smell in the air between us but it might have been the tang of memory. He let out a long breath and we shared stories of aching knees, bad backs and hay fever.

               Ahead of me the line stretched for miles alongside the river, I could see people moving slowly up some steps and then over a bridge. I wondered how long it would take to get there, if it would get colder, if it might rain or if the queue would suddenly come to a halt and we'd be left standing in the same spot for an hour. I decided not to worry about anything, it was enough just to be there.

               I noticed how the older among us carried rucksacks and bags full with things, and how the younger had little more than a phone, or a plastic bottle, or a coffee cup with a lid. I had brought a full set of waterproofs, sandwiches, three pint bottles of water and a London guidebook. I made a note not to eat anything until it got dark.

               The man behind me was talking to a young woman that carried a leather satchel over her shoulder. I heard them laugh and I smiled at them hoping they'd let me join their chat but the queue suddenly moved forwards and the lady gestured to me to move on. It felt awkward and I decided to keep myself to myself for the rest of the day but then she asked if I'd like a piece of her chocolate bar and I felt happier. The three of us talked for the next hour about our families and jobs. The lady in front joined in and told us all about her life in the Navy. She'd been all over the world but was glad to be retired now. I didn't tell them about the forty years I'd worked in the same factory that was just a little more than a mile from my home.

               There was more noise now, a gentle hubbub that hung in the darkening air like a low purr. People were taking coats and hats from their bags and unwrapping packets of sandwiches. I heard the occasional pop of drink cans being opened and the sound of ripping Velcro. A small round of applause broke out from somewhere behind me. Someone's phone rang.

               I was struck by how calm it was in the queue. There was no anger or irritancy, no rush or bustle, just the cool tempo of kindness and acceptance. It felt right.

               I climbed the steps I'd seen from a distance earlier, it was dark now but the street lights threw an amber glow about the queue. I'd become more at ease with the people near me and found myself talking about parts of my life I thought I'd never share with anyone. I listened to stories of happiness and of woe, and I offered sympathy and understanding. It felt wonderful to be able to talk without restraint and to listen generously.

               I crossed the bridge and continued on until dawn broke. The queue moved slowly towards Westminster and as the sun rose I heard the distant sound of singing.

               Just as we approached Westminster Hall I shook hands with my friends and we exchanged telephone numbers.

               I walked slowly past the catafalque and turned to face the coffin. I nodded and said my thanks to a Queen that had served my country loyally for seventy years.

               I'd queued for twelve hours and had spent less than five minutes in the hall.

               No finer gesture.

               "The country loaded its whole self into your slender hands, hands that can rest now, relieved of a century's weight"

September 20, 2022 18:12

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