We watch swallows migrating from the Beacon three miles out of town. Our thighs burn as we climb up the hill, trainers slipping in dewy grass. It’s difficult to see where we’re heading this early in the morning, but we’ve done this journey so many times we don’t need to think. We’re following the same pattern, like the swallows in the sky, and neither of us has to ask for the rules. We sit at the top of the Beacon, a late summer breeze through our hair, and we watch the birds cutting through the dawn like a knife opening a vein. We watch swallows migrating and we join hands.
There’s something satisfying about the ritual. We comment on the formations of the birds against the bloodied sky, on how their delicate wings can possibly sustain them on their long journey. We laugh at how my skinny arms and legs, so delicate too, can barely propel me up a short flight of stairs.
‘You could never be a swallow,’ he whispers to me, the warmth of his head on my shoulder, his arm around my waist.
‘I wouldn’t want to be. My home is with you.’
We smile at the lines that anchor us year after year.
But this year at the Beacon, an early cold wind is blowing. It’s a September dawn, and we’re wrapped in so many layers of clothing that we can’t touch each other. All we can feel is woollen fabric.
We can smell a worn out fire on the breeze. I enjoy the tang of the smoke and let it settle in my hair. The dawns are coming later now, but I don’t feel tired. Sometimes, I think the ritual heals us in a way we can’t see. It’s been a difficult year. He’s been promoted, but he can’t shoulder the new responsibility. Government cuts are coming and I know he can’t break bad news to anyone. His mother died in February. He couldn’t even tell me. I had to wait until his father rang me to discuss funeral arrangements. Worry is deepening the lines on his forehead and biting through his fingernails.
I hope the swallows will heal him.
We’re at the top of the Beacon, earlier than usual, and we sit and wait. I think watching the swallows was originally my idea. I can’t imagine him suggesting something like that. After all the years we’ve spent together, all the walks we’ve been on, the countryside just doesn’t seem to sit right with him. When we moved here for his job, I researched the best local walks, the best places to spot wildlife. He took his new colleagues to the pub. He still enjoys our walks, or at least he says he does. But there’s an invisible twitching in the space he occupies. Something quivers at being away from his comfort zone. I can sense it even now, so I rest my head on his shoulder. His bones dig into my temple.
‘Are you OK?’ I say.
He gives no sign that he’s heard me. I wonder what he’s thinking. I’m about to ask him when a flock of swallows launches into the air. The birds quickly form an arrowhead pointing south and seem to hang in the sky before flying with such incredible agility towards their destination. Only the faintest rustling of their wings can be heard, but their cries pierce our hearts. Their long journey – through France, Spain, Morocco, the Sahara – is one I could never imagine making, but there’s something freeing about watching the start of the migration. As if there’s always hope of an escape, should you want it.
I wait for him to say his line. When the swallows disappear into the growing red orb of the sun, I say it for him.
‘I could never be a swallow.’
I reach for his hand, my palm facing upwards. There’s a pause before he takes it, a pause that has never emerged before. His eyes are watching the horizon and his face is still.
His cold hand makes me shiver.
The leaves change colour and fall from the trees, and we fall back into our routine: his job at the local government office, mine at the Asda checkouts or babysitting my friends’ children. We come together to eat a meal or watch the news. We potter around each other. The threat of government cuts seems to have gone and I wait for him to smile again.
As winter deepens, I notice a widening gap between us when we sit on the sofa. We bought the sofa a decade ago, and the grooves of our bodies are easy to see. Now, he sits too far to the right. I try to move right too, to take the gap away, but my skin can feel the awkward position. My muscles ache until I move back into my space.
When we wake, we kiss each other to start the day. As the first days of spring arrive, he leaves the bed before the kiss, leaves the house before our good mornings. My ears ache to hear the sound of his voice. My lips tingle from the emptiness around them. The worry lines on his forehead deepen again, but he won’t tell me how I can help.
By summer, we’ve stopped holding hands. I track his migration now. I follow him in between my shifts at the checkout. I watch him as he buys his daily coffee, as he sneaks a cigarette at the back of his office building, as he watches TV. I watch him sleeping, the jerky rise and fall of his chest coinciding with his snores. His face is in constant movement, matching thought patterns unknown to me. I have to ask him the rules.
‘We don’t hold hands anymore,’ I say, one day. I’m peeling potatoes; he’s dutifully chopping onions. It’s the first meal we’ve cooked together for three months.
‘Don’t we?’ he says, but his voice doesn’t rise in surprise. He speaks in monotones these days.
‘Oh. I hadn’t noticed.’
His voice is hard. An aching silence joins us, the silence of a delayed hand hold.
Summer turns to autumn, and it’s time to watch the swallows migrating again. He assures me he’ll meet me there, that he’s got a couple of things to sort out first. I leave him sitting at his desk, a pen in hand, an undecipherable look on his face.
The roads are quiet. It doesn’t take me long to reach the Beacon. It’s the first I’ve ascended it alone. Summer weather is still holding on and by the time I reach the top I’m breathing heavily and sweating. I imagine him laughing at my pink face and the knot in my stomach eases slightly. I sit on the grass and wait. A few daring swallows are already in the air, impatient to get on. I dig my hands into the grass and close my eyes. The rush of lorries on the motorway in the distance. The chirruping of nameless birds. The in and out of my own breathing.
When I open my eyes, the sun has started to rise and the sky is smouldering orange. I look to my right, but the space is still empty.
‘I could never be a swallow,’ I say, my voice flying away on the wind. I check my watch. I reach out with my hand.
The final swallows dart across the sky.
Julia Molloy is a short story writer whose work has appeared at The Fiction Pool. She was shortlisted for the Fresher Writing Prize 2016 and longlisted for the Doris Gooderson 2016 short story competition. Her fiction is soon to appear at Fictive Dream. She graduated from Lancaster University in 2015 with a degree in English Literature and Creative Writing.