Harold thought of the words he had written to Queenie, and their inadequacy shamed him. He pictured himself returning home, and Maureen calling David, and life being exactly the same except for Queenie dying in Berwick, and he was overcome. The letter rested on the dark mouth of the postbox. He couldnt let it go.
After all, he said out loud, though nobody was looking, its a nice day. He hadnt anything else to do. He might as well walk to the next one. He turned the corner of Fossebridge Road before he could change his mind.
It was not like Harold to make a snap decision. He saw that. Since his retirement, days went by and nothing changed; only his waist thickened, and he lost more hair. He slept poorly at night, and sometimes he did not sleep at all. Yet, arriving more promptly than he anticipated at a postbox, he paused again. He had started something and he didnt know what it was, but now that he was doing it, he wasnt ready to finish. Beads of perspiration sprouted over his forehead; his blood throbbed with anticipation. If he took his letter to the post office on Fore Street, it would be guaranteed next day delivery.
The sun pressed warm on the back of his head and shoulders as he strolled down the avenues of new housing. Harold glanced in at peoples windows, and sometimes they were empty, and sometimes people were staring right back at him and he felt obliged to rush on. Sometimes, though, there was an object that he didnt expect; a porcelain figure, or a vase, and even a tuba. The tender pieces of themselves that people staked as boundaries against the outside world. He tried to visualize what a passerby would learn about himself and Maureen from the windows of 13 Fossebridge Road, before he realized it would be not very much, on account of the net curtains. He headed for the quayside, with the muscles twitching in his thighs.
The tide was out and dinghies lolled in a moonscape of black mud, needing paint. Harold hobbled to an empty bench, inched Queenies letter from his pocket, and unfolded it.
She remembered. After all these years. And yet he had lived out his ordinary life as if what she had done meant nothing. He hadnt tried to stop her. He hadnt followed. He hadnt even said goodbye. The sky and pavement blurred into one as fresh tears swelled his eyes. Then through them came the watery outline of a young mother and child. They seemed to be holding ice cream cones, and bore them like torches. She lifted the boy and set him down on the other end of the bench.
Lovely day, said Harold, not wanting to sound like an old man who was crying. She didnt look up, or agree. Bending over her childs fist, she licked a smooth path to stop the ice cream from running. The boy watched his mother, so still and close it was as if his face was part of hers.
Harold wondered if he had ever sat by the quay eating ice cream with David. He was sure he must have done, although searching in his mind for the memory, he found it wasnt readily available. He must get on. He must post his letter.
Office workers were laughing with lunchtime pints outside the Old Creek Inn, but Harold barely noticed. As he began the steep climb up Fore Street, he thought about the mother who was so absorbed in her son she saw no one else. It occurred to him it was Maureen who spoke to David and told him their news. It was Maureen who had always written Harolds name (Dad) in the letters and cards. It was even Maureen who had found the nursing home for his father. And it raised the questionas he pushed the button at the pelican crossingthat if she was, in effect, Harold, then who am I?
He strode past the post office without even stopping.
Excerpted from The Unlikely Pilgrimage of Harold Fry by Rachel Joyce. Copyright © 2012 by Rachel Joyce. Excerpted by permission of Random House, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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