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One morning, Richie Biggar, out for a stroll, realised that he was not alone on the land that he owned.  Someone, or something was moving in the distance, down by the old bridge.  He decided to investigate and jumping over a nearby he walked across the field, which was muddy from the previous night’s rain.  He then followed the narrow path which took him down to where the river flowed.


He headed for the lonely spot just at the foot of a low-lying hill.  There were sparse patches of pine trees here and there.  Richie had always felt that this area had a slightly brooding atmosphere.  The bridge, built from large, dark grey stones was arched in shape.  The river that flowed below was dark from the surrounding peaty ground, and  the few trees on the banks were withered and twisted in shape and had long given up producing leaves.  As he came closer, he began to hear the steady murmur of the water.  He took himself down to the bank and looked underneath the bridge, where sat a shabbily dressed man with grey hair and a long unkempt beard.


Richie was an astute man, with sharp instincts. His many years in the army had taught him much.  He quickly noted the rucksack propped up against the side of the bridge, also the sleeping bag spread on the sloping platform of earth underneath.


When he looked at the stranger, he saw fear in the blue eyes that met his. This man was no poacher, nor was he a drinker.  He was simply a man of the road.  Glancing at the sturdy army boots, Richie guessed that like himself, he had at one time been a soldier.


He smiled to put him at his ease, them raised his hand in a friendly gesture.  It was important to him to convey that he meant no harm. When he asked his name, the man placed his fingers to his mouth and moved them about.  At first, Richie was puzzled, them the penny dropped.  The fellow was either mute or too shy to engage with him and was therefore unable or unwilling to speak.  In all probability, he had spent the night underneath the bridge to shelter from the rain. Richie had no problem with him stopping by on his land for a few days.  Giving a nod, then turned to go back the way he came.


It was strange, Richie thought to himself as he strode back across the field, how different men were.  He was grateful that when he had returned from the war and been able to resume normal life again.  Mentally strong, he was able to detach, but he had seen some of the men he had served alongside disintegrate before his eyes. They were simply too fragile for the horrific events they had witnessed. Their nerves were permanently shattered.  All it took was the slam of a door, or some other loud noise to plunge them back into hell in an instant.  And they had to get away. The flashback, the nervous breakdowns and the shell shock stopped these men of gentle disposition from being who they were before they had gone to fight for their country.  When the war was over, some took to drink, others turned to pills and a few, were permanently restless. They shunned people, preferring isolation, and took to the roads, walking forever alone, moving from place to place seeking shelter and food where they could.


That afternoon, Richie filled two large flasks, one with a hearty mutton stew, the other with good hot coffee.  Adding some bread and cheese, he placed everything in a basket and set once more across the field.


When he arrived, he saw that although the man was not there, his few belongings were.  On a large rock close by, he could see some threadbare clothes drying in the sunshine.  There were apple cores lying around, probably taken from the apple trees near the main road on the way down to the bridge.  Undoubtedly hungry, the man would be glad of the stew which would be far more substantial than the fruit.  Richie spotted some wood shavings lying around and wondered if he had been carving something, possibly a stick or a staff to pass the time away.


He left the basket by the bridge and set off home.  The next morning when he came to collect the items, he was pleased to see that the food had been eaten, although there was no sign of the man.  For the next week he continued to put fresh food down daily returning in the mornings to pick up the empty flasks which he would refill and return each afternoon.  One day he found the spot bare of the man's possessions.  All that remained was the basket containing the empty flasks.  The stranger had gone on his way, just as Richie knew he would.  As he lifted it up, he spotted a small object lying between the two flasks.  He took it in his hand and studied it.  It was a wooden carving, a beautiful little model of the bridge that had provided shelter these last few days. It showed superior skill and craftsmanship, a humble thank you for the hospitality of the last few days.


That evening, in the quiet of his living room, Richie sat deep in thought.  An overwhelming sadness came over him as he reflected on those memories of the war years that had been rekindled these last few days. The tiny bridge sat on the mantelpiece above the roaring fire.  Although there had been little direct contact with the stranger and he did not even know his name he had done what he could to supply his needs for a few days, and therefore made a bond with him. He felt a strange sense of loss at his departure and was touched and humbled by the gift that had been left.


He would always have a poignant reminder of the past few days and the silent, gentle man of the road.

                               



Jean. A Callender


(c) 2021                         


Down By the Old Bridge

Jean A Callender