The Long Walk

This was the first short story I wrote for my writing course. As with the earlier character study, many of the characters are based (albeit loosely) on people I know. Having said that, the events described did not actually happen. Remember it is for a creative writing course, after all!

“Pass the Ketchup, please!” John’s voice boomed across the table. Six hands reached for the bottle, but it was Andrew who got there first. Before passing it on, he poured a liberal dollop onto his own plate, as did several others. By the time it reached John’s end of the long table there appeared to be some sauce leftÂ… but when John attempted to tip some out nothing moved. “Hey!” John complained, “I wanted the ketchup, not the bottle!”

“Never mind,” said Dorothy, giving him a peck on the cheek and placing a new bottle on the table beside him. “Perhaps this’ll help.” John raised an eyebrow at her. “I suppose you had this all along?” he enquired, a cheeky grin on his face.

“Naturally!” Dorothy responded, “I know what this lot is like. The ketchup was only half full when you asked for it. There was no chance that you would get any all the way down here.”

It was about half past seven in the morning, and the church hall was full of chattering teenagers, parents, and assorted others including three dogs, enjoying a shared breakfast before setting out on the annual Easter Monday pilgrimage to St Albans Abbey. Allegedly the day was intended for younger Christians, but it always drew plenty of the young-at-heart too, John among them. He had been retired for almost three years, and this would be the twenty-third year that he made the seventeen mile walk from St Peter’s church on the outskirts of Watford to the nearby abbey located on its hilltop overlooking the ancient Roman city of Verulamium. Many would be making similar journeys. Some would have been walking since the previous day. From St Peter’s those doing the walk took a serpentine route along the banks of the river Colne, and then through the green pathways of Brickett Wood, instead of the more direct route following the busy road connecting the two towns.

Before long, the happy sounds of eating subsided. Even Clive, the slightly rotund priest, eventually had to admit he didn’t want another fried egg, sausage or slice of crispy bacon. Hunger sated, the walkers put on their coats and headed outside.

Easter had arrived early this year. The clocks had not been changed for summertime, and the temperature overnight had been low enough to leave branches smothered in frost, and a thin layer of ice on puddles from the overnight rain. As he had so often before, John set a brisk pace down the short hill to the riverside path. The walkers stretched in untidy clumps between the fast walkers at the front, and Clive who would bring up the rear occasionally mopping beads of sweat from his forehead with a giant white handkerchief. The dogs, sufficiently well behaved to walk unleashed, ricocheted between the front and the back of the group their tongues lolling out as they raced around and among the walkers.

John loved to be in the lead, watching the wildlife that scampered and flew away from them. At this time of day, the path through the woods was populated with creatures that would soon disappear into more private areas until evening.

It was about noon by the time they reached the bridge over the motorway. As they crossed, the familiar spires of the abbey finally came into view about two miles away on the top of the next hill. From here it was a short walk down a surprisingly steep incline into the public park that lay between. As they entered the park, they passed part of the wall that once encircled Verulamium, its layers of flint rock and red brick bathed in the weak sunlight. By the lake, they joined the other pilgrims who were already starting to queue for the procession into the abbey.

By the time the service was finished, the sun was already casting long shadows across the adjoining cemetery. The group quickly walked down the hill to the train station, where everyone was surprised to find that the gates were locked.

“What on earth is going on?” pondered Clive.

“ErmÂ…. I think I may have an idea,” responded John who had been looking at the timetable. “It appears that because this is a bank holiday there aren’t any trains!”

“Well, that isn’t a problem. We’ll just call someone.”

“Using what?” enquired John, picking up the handset of the public telephone that stood next to the timetable display. The cable that should have connected it to the dialing mechanism dangled loose.

“Perhaps we could call from one of the shops,” suggested Andrew.

“We could,” responded Clive, “if there were any open”.

For a while, everyone was silent. Nobody wanted to contemplate the possibility of a long walk home, particularly as twilight was already turning the clouds overhead vivid shades of orange and purple. Suddenly John chuckled to himself.

“I’ve had an idea”, he said. “I’ll be back in a couple of minutes.” As John walked off, everyone exchanged looks with each other. Their unspoken question was answered a few minutes later when a minibus pulled up and John got out.

“Does anyone need a ride?” a cheerful voice called from inside. Clive peered through the window, and was amazed to see Robert, the Bishop of St Albans, behind the wheel.

“Are you sure?” Clive asked.

“Of course,” responded Robert, “unless you wanted to take some extra exercise!”

At that everyone laughed and began climbing into the minibus. Almost everyone managed to squeeze in, but there was no space for John himself.

“Don’t worry about me,” he laughed, “We guessed that there wasn’t enough room for everyone in the minibus. I called Dorothy from the Bishop’s house and she is on her way to collect me.” So saying, he closed the door and cheerfully waved goodbye as the minibus pulled away.