by Thomas Ollerhead

She came out of the small station, the smoke from the departing train billowed across the lane, parting and swirling about the bare hawthorns. Putting down her small suitcase she fumbled open the umbrella, taking in the comforting familiarity of the scene, the grey mist heavy with drizzle shrouding the terrace of labourer’s cottages. Across the road, the corner shop, where as a child she would stand against the counter, caught in choice, her small coin held in eagerness, and off to the side, up the cobbled hill the old bakery, where on Saturday mornings she would impatiently wait for the freshly baked bread, its comforting warm aroma, that wonderful soft freshness as she ran home with it to her mother, and how she would sit in the cosiness of the warm kitchen as her mother sliced and buttered each piece, the butter melting and running to pleasure, and how her simple world then had been then so complete.

It had been almost nineteen years since she had been taken away, small-talk masking and holding at bay the pain of leaving, the flicker of curtains as her father secretly watched her go. He had been unable to come to terms with the parting, slipping into a shunning silence when words had failed. Many nights she had sat at the small table in her cold cell, scratching and rewriting her permitted weekly letter to her father, knowing it would remain unanswered, unopened. Her mother, caught in the crossfire, occasionally would write, simple words, descriptive as though to a child, no mention of her father, as though willing away conflict, the reality, the procession of time.

The years of confinement were now behind her, the high walls, the strict discipline. She recalled the almost palpable fear as she stepped out through the small Judas gate, the safety, the security of certain tomorrows falling frighteningly away. Now that part of her life was behind her and she was going home.

She picked up her case and crossed the road, her old school, its gates now chained and padlocked, the playground, weed-strewn and poignantly empty. The roof, slick grey in the dull afternoon drizzle, partly collapsed, a blackened purlin incongruously obscuring the top of the high stone-mullioned window. She stopped for a moment, trance-like, and it was all still there, the long afternoons in the small classroom, the lazy smell of the coal fire, the piano, Sister Joseph’s wondrous stories, all echoing down the years, drifting memories easing her back to a time before the harsh reality of life, back to her childhood.

Following the railway path she approached the main part of the village. The place was busier than remembered, a chandler’s shop where the old paddock had opened onto the road, a motorcycle workshop in the end of the high barn. She remembered it as the blacksmith’s, part of the old sign still faintly visible, the metallic ringing of hammers deep in the secret darkness, the echoing of the shire horse’s hooves in the stillness of those long gone summer mornings still somehow alive.

She turned into the lane, it surprised her that it was surfaced, gone forever the puddles in which they had sailed sticks and paper boats. The big willow with its long lawn-sweeping branches, coppiced and stunted, no more a haven of make-believe and secrets. It was strange, the number of nights she had lain awake in the stillness of her cell, the willow always full and flowing, always there, a place of refuge and safety.

The house, with its tumbling gables was the same, still the soft magnolia paint-work, flaking a little now, the hanging wisteria, its heady fragrance on those long gone summer evenings, fuller now, heavier than remembered. She rang the bell, crisp brown leaves pirouetted into the corners of the porch. The house was quiet, somewhere up the lane a wood-pigeon flapped into flight, then the familiar almost forgotten cough just the other side of the door, Sister Mary Francis had come home.

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Reconciliation, 28 October 2001