The Merlin skims the water on a cold and unforgiving, February morning. Did it make a mistake, when it veered to the Southern bank of the estuary, where the Dunnocks chattered and chirruped in their hundreds in the hedgerows? What brought it to my church? Do you believe in appointments?
No tidal surge today, as I cross the swing bridge over the Severn - I have never witnessed one, though I have seen it on film, and heard of stories about surfers riding the wave from the very mouth of the estuary, until they run - triumphantly - out of momentum in the very docks of Gloucester.
I have an appointment with an elderly woman who holds a massive, bronze key. She has an appointment too - her son-in-law’s father has died, and today is the day of his funeral, but not in my church. He has finally died, aged 102, having eaten nothing but corn flakes and milk for the last thirty years. We will both agree that all this (we swing our arms around, expansively) must carry on after we have ‘gone’.
I remember my mother’s last words. Strange how I have never, until now, read any more into them than I did at the time, twenty five years ago. It must have been the shock.
She was sitting upright in the double bed with my father, and they were both watching the television, which was placed on a table at the foot of that bed. Becoming bored with the programs on offer - which she frequently was - she said:
“This is a load of rubbish. What’s on the other side?”
As my father got up to change channels, she died without another word. I don’t think he saw the funny side at the time either, which is probably why he never pointed it out. He was never one for deep irony anyway.
Before he died, I looked after him for a while, and one night, he became uncharacteristically emotional and said, “I don’t want to die...”
I asked why not, and he innocently answered, “Because I’ll miss you children when I have gone.”
He could not have seen the funny side of that either.
Meanwhile, my Merlin is flitting and darting, ever closer to the church at Longney. Ever closer, ever closer.
I approach the down hill stretch to Nailsworth, the traffic slows until it reaches a complete stop, and some cars turn off their engines. Maybe they know something I do not - maybe everyone knows something that I have not yet found out. A few cars restart their engines and so do I. We creep slowly forward a few hundred yards, and I notice that other cars are coming toward us in the other direction, which gives me false hope.
Then - as a uniformed policeman walks slowly and calmly up the line of approaching traffic, telling them all to turn around and go away, I see that the problem lies at the very base of a steep turn, and realise that it will be quicker to head back and go through Tetbury, if I am to make my appointment at the church on time. It later transpires that several people have been killed on the road, a few hundred yards in front of me. The lorries - unable to make a four point turn as we can - are destined to stay until all the mess has been cleared away.
Get me to the church, get me to the church, for Pete’s sake, get me to the church on time.
Our Merlin carries on up the estuary, heading for the same church as me.
I retrace my tracks until I reach the Tetbury fork, then I turn left and continue along the road I know very well. I drive past ‘Highgrove’, home of the Prince of Wales, and notice - as I always do - that the resident police do not seem to ever make the effort to clean the mud from the plastic‘no parking’ bollards that are always symbolically blocking the Prince’s back entrance. I have already wondered - again - if Diana ever thought of one of her young sons when she passed through the village of Willesley, on her way to Highgrove, and I mentally make the same old joke when I pass through ‘Knockdown’ - houses there are sold for ‘Knockdown’ prices...
I know I must, at some point, make a left turn, and this is what I do at the next major opportunity.
The Merlin flies ever closer to the church at Longney.
I drive down roads that I have never experienced before, and I find myself grateful for the accident that ended the lives of a few people, for this reason alone. It is a pleasant road. Soon, I am back on a familiar one, but - since I left early - I have plenty of time before my appointment at the church, and I am relaxed.
I pass by the mills at Nailsworth, where all the Scarlet cloth that clad all the brave, doomed, British soldiers and the robes of all the Popes of Christendom in Rome for hundreds of years, was made from the piss of thousands of drunkards in the local pubs, and hung out to dry in the fields above. Those soldiers dyed the same cloth in their own scarlet, but - unlike the Nailsworth hue - it was not fixed, despite the piss, and despite the dying.
Over the motorway, and past the very spot where poor Melanie’s body lay undiscovered in a plastic bag for years, having made the same journey as me, from Bath. Men in florescent jackets continue to fill bin liners, and search for another unforgotten treasure, twenty years too late.
After one thousand miles, one thousand flights, one thousand days and one thousand words, our Merlin flies - unusually - straight into the talons of a large, red Sparrow Hawk, just as I pull up and park outside the church in Longney. The children, in the school opposite, continue to play out their long lives.