Robert knew this stretch of road like the back of his hand. He used to run along this particular country by-way most days, making the short 10-minute journey from his house by car and putting on his trusty old battered, blue Asics runners.
Other days, he and his wife Jane would take a leisurely stroll together hand-in-hand. On every occasion that he would venture out along the road, Robert would marvel at a pair of majestic oak trees that towered over all they surveyed a mile from his start point.
He was so familiar with the intricacies of the local ecosystem that he could tell what flowers were in bloom and in what hedgerows to find them throughout the year. He would listen contentedly to the melodic whispering of the soft summer breeze whistling through the trees like waves upon a shore as his soles beat the road in metronomic time.
Robert would delight at a thrush song providing the final layer of sound to this sumptuous symphony. It was, in truth, the place where he felt he was most at peace with the world, in it and of it all at once.
It hurt him to abstain from visiting this place for nearly five years after the accident, but he decided that today was the day that he must return. As he set out from the house, Robert felt a lump form in his throat and in the pit of his stomach all at once, his anxiety levels rising steadily as his grip on the steering wheel tightened. His mind could not help but return to the day that he became one half of a whole, when life as he knew it was irretrievably broken. The day when his wife, lover and soulmate had been taken from him. Jane died half a decade ago, but to Robert it still felt like yesterday.
The fateful day in question was an ordinary day that would have an extraordinary impact on the rest of Robert’s life. He had an eye for detail and prided himself on his ability to remember details about people he had only briefly met, but this particular day felt hazy and distant to Robert when he tried to recall it, as though trying to grasp hold of a dream after waking up. Sometimes he would close his eyes and conjure up a picture of his wife sitting alongside him, the radio playing American Pie by Don McLean while cool air swept through her chestnut curls about her shoulders. Every time, this vision would be ripped from his thoughts and be replaced with a deafening tyre screech, a thud and the sickening sound of metal grinding upon itself. Robert could easily recall the smell of gasoline and the searing pain he had felt in every crevice of his body when the car came to a juddering halt. The fractures healed, but the pain of Jane’s loss did not.
Robert wrung the steering wheel anxiously as he drew closer to his destination, his wedding band glinting with every clench of his fists. It had been so long, and yet this all seemed so familiar. Unsure of what lay ahead, he rolled his car into his usual parking space and tentatively engaged the handbrake. It had taken almost two years for Robert to find the mental and physical strength to drive after the accident. A small part of him blamed himself and not the drunk driver in the other car, and a bigger part of him felt like he had nowhere to go without Jane by his side.
Robert alighted from the car and craned his head to the sky, taking deep, meditative breaths of the crisp autumn air the way his therapist had shown him in one of their many sessions. With every passing breath, he felt the knot in his stomach loosening. He could not help but marvel at the sight that stretched out in front of him; an array of autumnal colour had presented itself on the most beautiful canvas that he could imagine. As Robert walked, he watched contentedly as the auburn foliage made its’ languorous journey towards the leaf-littered ground. Within half an hour, he came upon his favourite feature of his route-the pair of oak trees that he had adored many moons ago. He stroked the rippling bark gently with his hand and paused. “Good to see you, old friends,” he sighed, his breath rising above him into the evening air.
After sitting for a short while beneath the trees, Robert moved on, a new determination in his stride. His next stop would be the most important – the place where Jane was snatched away from him all those years ago. He could sense that he was close to the spot before he could see it, his body subconsciously recoiling from a return to such painful memories.
Then he saw it. A small, wooden cross with the initials “J.D.” inscribed upon it had been erected, while the surrounding flora had been trimmed meticulously. A single rose sat at the foot of the cross, it’s brilliant red petals cutting through the otherwise orange surroundings. Robert stood rooted to the spot, his mouth agape. After what seemed like an eternity but was just a minute, he began to weep. At first, it was a mute, stifled cry, but gradually the pain, suffering and anguish of the past few years poured out in an uncontrollable flood. When he felt that he had no more tears to give, he smiled in spite of himself. Here was proof, both through his tears and this tiny cross, that Jane was still with him and he was not alone in carrying his memories of her.
Robert made his way back to the car after spending a brief time in whispered conversation with Jane’s memorial. He felt hopeful for the first time in years. His heart swelled as he turned the key and heard the opening bars of American Pie playing on the radio.