The Return

Each year of his son’s new life, Adam promised himself that he would revisit the clifftop walk of his own childhood summers. But it wasn’t until Ben was six years old that they were able to make the trip to the coast in order to fulfil that promise and release it into the wild.

Adam had told Ben all about the views of the sea, the spongy, rabbit-nibbled grass paths and the glorious, downhill, can’t-stop-running slope towards a wooded ravine. At home, all Ben’s ramblings took place in parks and playgrounds, so he studied his father solemnly, as if he were listening to a storybook.

There was a new car park at the cliffs where, in Adam’s day, there had been only a rough gravel patch cleared out of the gorse. Now, there was even tarmac and Pay and Display. Adam was a little dismayed by this development, but he was encouraged to see that the Coastguard’s cottage looked unchanged and that the footpath alongside it was just as he remembered it. The sun was gleaming as it dried away yesterday’s rain and a steady sea breeze rustled at their ears. Adam swung Ben up onto his shoulders so that the boy could see just how far the sea stretched away on one side, and how brightly the yellow gorse shone on the other. Ben’s Wellington boots banged gently against Adam’s chest as they strode along. But Ben was getting heavy, almost too big for this kind of ride. So Adam plopped him down and helped him push through the ferns that reached out over the track. Then, rounding a corner, Adam at last saw the headland opening out in front. The wide panorama he had missed for so long lay before them. Adam breathed it in, looking for the old landmarks. Faintly, he sensed something had changed, but at that moment, he caught the whoop and whee of his son’s shrill voice as Ben set off at a run down the path. Adam smiled as the boy’s legs whirred underneath him. He saw that Ben was heading for the fork lower down the path where a bench marked the best viewpoint over yards of tangled gorse towards the sandy cliffs and the sea. Except that now, too late, Adam realised that the fork in the path no longer petered out in a thorny barrier to the cliff edge. The land had shifted since he was last here. It had shrugged and shivered and lurched towards the sea. There was no longer any bench, no strip of tangled gorse stems. Now, the fork in the grassy path simply ran straight off the cliff edge.

“Ben!” Adam tried to shout, to wave his arms, to signal Ben to stop. But Ben was way in front of him. The wind whipped Adam’s cries away and his useless signals were made to Ben’s back. Ben ran on and veered off the main path onto the fork. Adam shouted again, but the boy couldn’t possibly hear him. Adam could do nothing except watch as his son ran headlong towards thin air.

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Then, suddenly, Ben stopped. Stock still. Frozen to the spot.

“Oh,” whispered Adam. “Please. Just. Stay. Like that.” And he set off, running, gasping, aware that if Ben turned round and saw him, he might start running away again, thinking it was a game.
“Please,” Adam breathed between strides. ”Please don’t move.”
Just as he said this, Ben did move. He stepped forward a little, his head and neck craning.
Adam was within earshot now, but he needed to be within grabbing distance before he dared risk startling Ben into running on. Adam slowed to a quick stride. He was almost there. Then, just as he felt he could reach out to his son, Adam saw what Ben was looking at. In front of the boy lay a coiled shape, marked with a distinct dark zigzag. An adder, usually so private, was warming itself in the sun, caught in the act. Ben was staring and staring at the snake, and the snake, its head raised forward, was staring back at him.

Adam looked about for a stick, but there was nothing. He began to lean forward for his son, to pull him back. At the same moment, some instinct made Ben raise his foot and stamp it to the ground. The vibrations in the soft path were enough for the snake. It unravelled and twisted away in a blink, sliding towards a pile of rocks at the very edge of the cliff. Ben turned, a small St George who had faced down his dragon.
“Did you see it Dad? Did you? The snake. It looked and looked at me – like it knew me!”
Adam stumbled forward. He fell to his knees and grabbed his son, squeezing him close. Ben wriggled and chatted on. But Adam didn’t hear him. He clung to the squirming boy. Then he raised his head and stammered out thanks to whichever clifftop goblin or sandy god had sent the snake to interrupt Ben’s hurtling dash down that shifting, vanishing path.

Caroline Greene