Margaret Skea  - What about Tom?

 
What about Tom?

As the car reached the brow of the hill Claire swung it into the layby and cut the engine. Getting out she leant her elbows on the rough wall and stared at the old familiar landscape. It hadn’t been a conscious decision to stop, rather the instinctive re-awakening of an old habit. A sign that she was home. 
The valley lay before her like a crumpled patchwork quilt, a kaleidoscope of colour. From above, the hedges were low and irregular, outlining the pattern of fields, green and brown and flamboyant splashes of yellow rape. Later would come the pale creams and golds of early ripening corn and the blue linseed flower, later still the rich red of newly turned soil and the zebra-stripes of burnt stubble. Today, however, it was mid-May, the sun pale, the air damp and everywhere the distinctive sweet, smell of the rape.
One by one she focused on the well-remembered features of the landscape: the thorn trees late in blossom, the old quarry cleft on the opposite hillside, the river which wound like a threaded ribbon through the fields and coverts, and the bridge, which stood, ancient and intriguing, linking nowhere with nowhere. All her life it had been the focal point of her ‘once-upon-a-times’. In her imagination she had linked castle with abbey, granary with mill, manor with farm, Orpheus and Eurydice…
He was there now, leaning on the parapet, looking up towards the road, looking directly at her. She narrowed her eyes against the sunlight. What was it made her so sure? Something in the angle of the head perhaps, the tilt of his cap, the taut stillness which communicated itself to her even across this distance. Behind him the ground rose towards a coppice, polka-dot sheep grazing on the spring-green grass. For a moment she stared downwards, aware of her own quickened breathing and the pain in her palms as her nails bit into the flesh. The ground was soft underfoot and the grass brushed across her ankles trailing dampness, which seeped through her tights and canvas pumps, chilling her feet. She walked steadily, refusing to give in to her desire to hurry, refusing to admit, even to herself, the old feelings, which stirred within her. 
It had all been so long ago. She had made her choice and it had been the right one. She had been sure of that. And though she enjoyed the infrequent family get-togethers and the seasonal junketing with old friends, she had always returned to her wider world with a sense of relief, less safe perhaps, but less constricting. 
Now as she picked her way towards the bridge she felt, for the first time, confused. It would take no more than five minutes. Five minutes to conquer the butterflies in her stomach, the racing of her pulse, the rush of saliva in her mouth. Five minutes to regain her composure, to suppress the unruly thoughts, which slipped unbidden into her mind. She had come this way so often before and little had changed. The rickety wooden stile between Long Meadow and the Half-Acre, the rooks cawing high above the ring of pines, the untidy jumble of stones in the stream-bed, the trickle of water, peat-brown.
She was close enough now to see the way his hair curled untidily on his collar, the small tear at the corner of his jacket pocket, and the slight shine at the knees of his corduroys. “Hello, Tom.” Her voice was as cool as she could make it. 
“Claire… you weren’t expected.” It was a statement, not a question.
For the first time she understood why he had never been around when she visited. He must have been forewarned and so had stayed away. 
“They don’t know I’m here. It’s just … I need to talk things over with Mum and Dad.” The silence stretched between them, difficult, uncomfortable. High up the valley a tractor coughed into life, spluttered, then died again. 
Tom looked at his watch. His voice was diffident, careful. “If you’re not expected … we could have lunch … I usually cook enough for two days running. His grin was still boyish. “If you care to risk it and,” with a glance at his wellingtons, “If you don’t mind mud in your car.”
As they pulled up in the farmhouse yard, Claire thought, ‘Nothing has changed.’
But sitting at the table enjoying a surprisingly good lunch, she changed her mind. At first conversation was awkward. Tom talked about the farm, sheep prices, the Common Agricultural Policy and Brexit, and Claire felt a world away from it all. He asked about her work. At first she was hesitant, then the words began to spill out, filling the spaces between them. The London office, the view over Tower Bridge, a job she loved, and now, the opportunity to go to Sydney. The challenge, the excitement … her hesitation. “It’s so far away. So final.”
*
At home, Claire explained to her parents. “I need to tell them by Friday.”
Her mother was brisk and practical. “A golden opportunity. Don’t let it slip.”
Her father was encouraging and sympathetic. “We could come for Christmas, beat the cold.” Only her sister, in the quietness of the room they’d shared as children, dared to ask, “What about Tom?”
“What about Tom? It was a question that she birled around in her mind until she was almost dizzy with the thought of it. As a child he had been the pivotal point in her world. As a teenager marriage to Tom, life with Tom had seemed the inevitable conclusion to their childhood friendship. But then had come college and Claire’s first glimpse of a world in which he had no part. She had grown up and away and had thought herself gone for good. But now, she realized,  the valley and Tom had always been there, in the background, a kind of safety net, an option not quite closed. But Sydney…
Over the next few days she tramped up and down the valley, revisiting old haunts, seeing her home from every vantage point, filling her mind with a gallery of pictures to treasure.  She reveled in the lush, green dampness, the early morning cool, the light evening breezes which fanned her face and lifted her hair. Memories were everywhere. And in an endless cycle her decision came back to one single question. ‘What about Tom?’ She didn’t know.
Standing on the bridge, running her fingers backwards and forwards over the rough stone and picking at the lichens that clung tenaciously to the crevices between the blocks, she thought, ‘My life is punctuated by bridges. This one, my past, Tower bridge my present, the future? This one … or … In her mind’s eye she saw the soaring arcs of Sydney Opera House and the clean, clear lines of the bridge that spanned the harbour. From her office she would be able to watch the sun dimpling the water and the constant movement of traffic backwards and forwards over the bridge. If she went.
*
The office block rose out of a smother of trees. Claire sat, staring out through the huge picture-window. In the distance the Blue Mountains were a low smudge on the horizon and on the south shore the office towers glittered, Manhattan-like. Below her the water was an impressionist stipple: green, white, silver. Dark silhouettes of sleek yachts, their tall masts needle-thin, dipped and swayed in the early morning breeze. The first ferry ploughed across the bay. 
She hadn’t tried to describe it, for it defied description. She had simply written Claire on the back of the card and sent it off. She remembered his last words, as they stood together leaning on the parapet of the bridge, elbows touching. 
 “Send me a postcard … of your bridge. Maybe… he had smiled sideways at her, a crooked, half-smile, “There are a lot of sheep in Australia.”
(C) Margaret Skea 2017