The old field had been left fallow this year. They walked over pitted furrows, their legs whipped by tall weeds and resilient yellow flowers of oilseed that had been sown there by a fortunate wind. In the distance the man could see the silhouette of the copse where they were headed, black and theatrical against the blood of the dying sun.
The boy had run ahead, excited to be outside; his Ben Ten bag flapped against him. He stopped and glanced back over his shoulder. To check if he was still there? Hoping he wasn’t? He reached into his old leather satchel, stiff and wrinkled from the long decades in his father’s loft. He rummaged for his cigarettes but his hand rested on the battered cocoa tin it inevitably found first.
‘Come on, Dad. It’ll be dark soon.’ The boy said breathlessly as he caught him up. He took a pull on his cigarette and smiled, feeling a wet bubble rising in his throat, threatening to make him cry. He gently placed his hand on the back of the boy’s neck, checking he was still there; still real. The boy shrank away with a fearful glare.
‘Sorry.’ The man said. His voice was thick and barely within his control.
‘S’ok Dad.’ He replied. He tried to move back but the man made no reply.
The copse had existed forever. The generations of farmers, whose ephemeral custodianship had shaped this land, wouldn’t dare touch the gnarled, arthritic oaks that crowded together there. Some were as thick as a small car with twisted arms that could support a house, or so he had thought. They were a band of time travellers; shadows from another era, changing only slowly over the eons as the world around them danced to its own rhythm. He remembered coming here as a boy, walking in this field, sticking to the space between the rows of hops one year, the yellow oilseed another. He remembered his dad’s heavy hand resting on his neck; he’d not shied away. He reminded himself that he’d had no reason to.
‘Do you think that Granddad would’ve liked this place?’ The boy asked as they reached the trees.
The man breathed deeply and patted the tin through the satchel. ‘He loved it here. That’s why we’ve come.’
‘What about Mum? Would she have liked it?’
He looked at the boy. He couldn’t gauge the innocence of the question. He let it go; he was getting better at that. ‘I’m not sure, mate. I never brought her here.’
‘I think she would’ve liked it.’
He breathed deeply. ‘Maybe. Shall we do what we came here for?’ He thought about the packing and sorting they needed to do back at her flat. A wasted life to throw away. So much to do.
‘Can we climb that one, Dad? Please?’ The boy was scuffing the dirt by the trunk of a majestic old chap whose low arms invited climbers. He saw himself at the boy’s age, dangling his feet purposefully in mid-air.
He went to say no, to scold him but the words died in his throat. ‘Ok, but you need to be careful. Do you want me to take your bag?’ The boy glared his answer. He boosted him, nervously holding up his hands in case he slipped backwards, unused to the responsibility that had fallen to him. He need not have worried, the boy scampered up to the next branch and the next with the agile confidence of a squirrel. He smiled ruefully, it seemed that it didn’t matter how much selfish, drug-addled mothers locked their pasty children away from the world, those boy-skills were intrinsic. As much a part of him as his brown eyes or the alarming way he could bend his wrists back. A shard of jealousy pierced his heart as he watched the boy climb higher into the sunset, clinging to the black branches of this charred skeleton. An idea formed; he dismissed it. It formed again; this time he pushed the bag back on his shoulder and started to climb himself.
The boy waited higher up, his mouth a perfect O. The man grinned at him, the largest grin he’d grinned in years. They climbed together in silence until the branches were too thin, too young to support them properly. The man sat back in a crook and rested the bag next to him; he patted his lap. The boy seemed to think about it for a moment before carefully sitting down, holding on to a branch just in case.
The man took out the tin and held it in his hand; hefting it, liking the weight. ‘How long ago did Granddad die?’ The boy asked.
‘Why did you keep him?’ The boy wrinkled his nose. ‘And why a cocoa tin?’
The man smiled. ‘He liked cocoa. I don’t know why I kept him. Maybe I didn’t want to let him go.’
‘But you do now?’
‘I do. Are you ready too?’
The boy nodded. He reached in his bag and took out his own tin. They held each other’s gaze, barely making one another out in the gloom. Wordlessly they both tipped as if the earth had given them a sign to act. The twin clouds of ash swirled becoming one on an eddy of warm air from below. A gentle breeze caught it making it grow and spread before it fell like a fine spring rain. The man rested his hand on his son’s shoulder. ‘We’ve got a new life to go and find, are you ready?’
The boy nodded. Tears flowed down his face. He rested his head against his father’s chest and nodded again.