The kettle was whistling. He hadn’t noticed, he was lost in thought, his reverie only broken when Toby placed his heavy head upon his lap. He patted him gently, “Ok boy”. He let the letter fall back onto the paper-strewn dining table before pulling himself stiffly from the hard wooden chair.
Turning off the stove, he poured the boiling water into the flask and placed it in his bag. Toby for his part sat patiently watching his master get ready, a familiar routine. The heavy wax jacket had seen better days as had his tweed flat cap, although tatty they were as comfortable as a second skin.
He threw the bag over his shoulder and grabbed his walking stick from where it hung by the door, “Come on lad”. Toby needed no second invitation. Walking across the yard, his footsteps echoed in the damp air. He stared up into the hills, it was overcast, the tops shrouded in mist. He pulled his cap down a little further and started up the hill.
He swore it got steeper with every trip. Toby as always was out front investigating the morning’s new scents. It was a narrow path up the side of the hill, a path only he ever walked but it was still well-worn. By mid-morning, breathless, he could see the top. It was still dreary but at least the mist had cleared. Toby was now behind him, head down panting, it was difficult to know who was struggling more.
By the time they crested the hill the sun was making an effort to break through the low cloud. In the distance, he could see the welcoming respite of the wooden bench. The bench overlooked the lush valley, a truly breathtaking scene in every respect. As he sat down he couldn’t help but dwell on how much it had changed over the years.
A small village of new houses spread out where once the old mill had been. The stream he had played in as a child was lost within it. An army of pylons marched inexorably across the heart of the valley and in the distance a low rumbling and swooshing of vehicles speeding along a motorway. Progress, he thought, unstoppable, inescapable progress.
Once, Toby and his brother had run across these hills, he imagined he could still hear their excited barks. He missed his flock, that gentle sea of white that would blanket the pastures below. It had been his livelihood and his passion. Three times county champion that was not to be sniffed at.
He pulled the flask from his bag, unscrewed the cup and poured the contents. Taking a careful sip, the hot coffee was bitter, not at all like his wife would have made. How he longed for that sweet taste again and to see her just one more time after all these years. He remembered when they had first met down by the oak. At least that still stood and somewhere carved into its trunk their initials from that perfect day. He pulled out a biscuit, the sweetness a welcome contrast to the bitterness. Toby looked up expectantly. In time-honoured fashion, he broke a piece off and threw it into his eager jaws.
This was getting him nowhere, he shook his head. As a necessity, he was a practical man. He was not the kind to dwell on the past and he had little use for melancholy. This self-indulgence would not get this day’s work done. Who was he to think he could hold back the passage of time? Well, enough was enough, he knew what he needed to do.
“You good to go boy?” he screwed the cup back on the flask and threw it in the bag. Toby might be tired, but as always he was ready to follow. Standing up, he looked across the valley one last time. For a moment, the sun broke through the clouds, a single ray illuminating the old oak. He smiled. Picking up his bag, he turned and gently caressed the copper plaque on the back of the bench, “Let’s go lad.”
It was afternoon by the time he was sat back in the kitchen, the kettle on. Toby was already curled up, fast asleep in his bed in the corner. On the table, a sea of red letters demanded payment and beside them the torn fragments of several offers. All except for today’s. He picked up the pen, found the dotted line and with a final flourish, this days work was done.