The happy fam­ily home was only a mem­ory, but the door to his emo­tions was about to be un­locked…

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On the same day of the same month Herbert But­ter­field made his an­nual pil­grim­age from Ex­eter to the East End of Lon­don to con­tem­plate the build­ing where once his home had stood, forty years be­fore.

It was a video shop now, in­deed it had had many in­car­na­tions, but Herbert re­mem­bered it as it had been then, be­fore the Ger­mans had blasted away ev­ery­one he loved. He re­mem­bered the smell of his fa­ther’s pipe, the sound of his lit­tle sis­ter’s laugh­ter and the feel­ing of be­ing loved in his mother’s arms. And ev­ery time he re­mem­bered, which he only al­lowed him­self to do on the an­niver­sary of their deaths, his lone­li­ness, usu­ally a be­nign pool of sor­row in the bot­tom of his soul, rose in a great tide and over­whelmed him.

To­day was no dif­fer­ent. He stayed an hour, search­ing the gleam­ing shop front for some­thing he knew he’d never find, and then he left. Usu­ally he would take the Un­der­ground, but to­day, with the streets bathed in sun­shine and the cherry blos­som danc­ing play­fully on the breeze, he de­cided to walk.

It was then, with the wound in his heart torn open and bleed­ing, that he wan­dered into a sec­ond-hand bookshop in the hope of find­ing some balm.

Herbert But­ter­field loved books. He gar­dened by trade, work­ing for the vil­lage squire who lived in a big house and had a big gar­den, but his pas­sion was sto­ries. A bright red novel on the shelf caught his eye. As he pulled it out, a rather tatty grey one fell to the floor.

When he picked it up, there was some­thing about the ti­tle – Home – that made him buy it.

Hav­ing noth­ing to do on the train, he opened the book and be­gan to read. What he found there among the yel­lowed pages was the warm glow of nos­tal­gia.

As he read the po­ems, his eyes wa­tered and his throat con­stricted and he had to make a very great ef­fort not to cry. He didn’t think it seemly for a fifty-two-year-old man to weep in a public train. But ev­ery word res­onated deep in the se­cret re­cesses of his be­ing where his pain was still raw.

It was late when he ar­rived at his cot­tage. His dog greeted him af­fec­tion­ately. He sat down with a bowl of soup but the po­ems would not leave him, nor would the sud­den as­sault of the past. At length, he did what he had never done be­fore; he wrote to the au­thor by way of his editor in Lon­don.

What fol­lowed came as a huge sur­prise. The au­thor wrote back, and she was a woman.

S J Swal­low was, in fact, Sarah-Jane, and she con­fessed that she hadn’t had a book pub­lished since that one, writ­ten in her thir­ties, over twenty years be­fore.

She thanked him for his praise but didn’t feel she was de­serv­ing of it. The book hadn’t sold many copies, she ex­plained; in­deed she was sur­prised he had come across it in a bookshop, even

“You found the strings to my soul and played a long-for­got­ten tune”

a sec­ond-hand one. She had barely writ­ten any­thing since. She signed it “With grat­i­tude, Sarah-Jane”.

Herbert But­ter­field was a quiet, self-con­tained man. He had never mar­ried, and the women he had dated over the years had soon grown frus­trated by his un­will­ing­ness to “open up” and left him. He was con­tent with his dog, the gar­dens he tended and the books he read.

Yet there was some­thing about Sarah-Jane’s po­ems that touched him. As he wrote in his sec­ond let­ter (af­ter apol­o­gis­ing for writ­ing to her again), “it is as if you have found the strings to my soul and played a long-for­got­ten tune”. How his friends in the Wily Fox would laugh at that! He didn’t ex­pect to get a let­ter back. Herbert read and re-read the po­ems and as he did so, the door so firmly shut on that dread­ful night of April the tenth, 1941, opened a crack and the light of his at­ten­tion flooded in, bring­ing his mem­o­ries to life. He re­mem­bered the

ear-shat­ter­ing sound of a bomb some­where fur­ther down the street and he re­called clam­ber­ing out of bed to hide be­neath it, as he had been told to do if there was no time to run to the shel­ter.

He must have lost con­scious­ness when the next bomb came be­cause when he opened his eyes, he was buried alive be­neath the de­bris of his home. A thin beam of light trick­led through the splin­tered beams and fallen bricks and he coughed on the taste of fear and the dust that filled his throat.

He didn’t know then that his par­ents had died. He called for them un­til his chest hurt; un­til he could call no more. But he didn’t die as he thought he would.

As dawn un­veiled the hor­ri­fy­ing scene of de­struc­tion Herbert But­ter­field re­mem­bered the re­lief at be­ing found, but he re­mem­bered too the crip­pling sense of de­spair.

He could see clearly now the el­derly man with arthritic fin­gers who gave him his coat to wear over his tat­tered py­ja­mas, the laven­der-scented woman who held him when he was told his fam­ily hadn’t made it and the lit­tle girl with big green eyes who had given him a daf­fodil.

As he re­mem­bered those small acts of kind­ness, his grief rat­tled through his body like an old snake that had been hid­ing there for years and had at last found a way out. He let it pass through him and with ev­ery sob he felt a lit­tle lighter.

Herbert But­ter­field was over­come by a strong de­sire to share his past. He sat at the kitchen ta­ble and wrote his story, from the very be­gin­ning. He wrote about the happy days be­fore the war and he wrote about the bomb. He un­bur­dened his heart of the sad­ness there.

When he had fin­ished, he felt so much bet­ter. One could even say he felt happy. He folded the pa­per into an en­ve­lope and sent it to Sarah-Jane Swal­low, thank­ing her for en­abling this heal­ing to take place.

She wrote back and this time at the top of the pa­per she had writ­ten her home ad­dress so he could write to her di­rectly. She was touched by his story, she wrote, and hon­oured that her po­etry should be cathar­tic for him. It had been cathar­tic for her too, be­cause she had writ­ten it af­ter her hus­band died.

Over the fol­low­ing months they wrote to each other of­ten. Herbert opened up. He told her ev­ery­thing. How he loved the birds that vis­ited the feed­ers in his gar­den, how he wept at the play of light on the sea, how he no longer felt lonely be­cause he had found a friend in her.

Sarah-Jane shared her life with him en­thu­si­as­ti­cally. She told him about the aban­doned dogs she took in, of the parish com­mit­tee who drove her in­sane with their end­less meet­ings and she told him she had started writ­ing again, be­cause of him.

Some­thing had shifted. He knew that this would be his last visit

The fol­low­ing April Herbert But­ter­field made his an­nual pil­grim­age to Lon­don. The video shop was still there but his sor­row had gone. Some­thing had shifted in­side him and he knew that this would be his last visit. It was time to let go of the past.

As he gazed out of the train win­dow, at the blos­som trees, white-flow­ered hedgerows and phos­pho­res­cent green of the new spring leaves, he re­alised that he loved Sarah-Jane Swal­low. He loved her with all his heart, even though he had never met her.

When he got home he wrote and asked whether she might agree to meet him. Her let­ter was hes­i­tant. “What if the sight of me ru­ins our friend­ship?” she asked. “I trea­sure you, Herbert But­ter­field, and I’m afraid of los­ing you.”

He wrote back im­me­di­ately, re­as­sur­ing her that there was noth­ing about her that could al­ter his feel­ings.

“I love you,” he con­fessed; “I love the per­son you are.”

She agreed to meet him at Ex­eter sta­tion with a flower in her lapel.

Herbert But­ter­field put on his best suit and ar­rived at the plat­form an hour early. He wrung his hands, paced the ground and looked fret­fully up and down the tracks. When at last the train ap­peared, his heart be­gan to hop in his chest like an ag­i­tated cricket.

The train screeched to a halt. The doors opened. Pas­sen­gers de­scended in a rush of im­pa­tience. But there was one pas­sen­ger who de­scended slowly. She was short and slim with grey­ing hair swept off a wide, gen­er­ous face and tied into a scruffy chignon.

Her ner­vous smile when she saw him was full of warmth. He swal­lowed hard to con­tain his emo­tion for in her lapel she wore a daf­fodil.

As he ap­proached, she pulled out the flower with a trem­bling hand. She held it out to him and he looked into her eyes, her big green eyes, and he knew at once who she was. Herbert But­ter­field didn’t know what to say, but he knew what to do. He pulled her into his arms and there, in Sarah-Jane’s fa­mil­iar em­brace, he found home.


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