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At the End of the Road

Sarah Franklin

"The town fills with tractors, shiny bright, red and green, parakeets against the grey of gaping shop fronts."

A vertiginous short story by novelist Sarah Franklin.

Becky (and Nick) will come from the farm – where else? – at the opposite end of town, so the best view is from here, at the top of the second hill. The main drag of town is built into a dip; the sag of a skipping rope before the counting games begin, or a tripwire before it’s pulled taut, depending on your opinion of life between these hills. Gemma’s dizziness and vague nausea can’t all be attributed to the vertiginous location, though. She’s been taking her mind off it by looking at the thickets of people lining the curve of the street and back up towards the brow of the hill opposite.

‘Someone’s waving at you.’ The woman beside Gemma is called Betty. Gemma met her ten minutes ago. Now she knows that Betty is in her seventies but feels older on the days her knees are playing her up, has lived here all her life, and remembers Gemma’s auntie Trisha from ‘before she got herself into all that bother.’ One of Betty’s grandkids played rugby with Nick – ‘Ollie were just starting out as Nick was playing his last few matches and ever so good to him, he was.’ Now Ollie’s in Australia for a year, ‘getting it out of his system’, so Betty has come in his place. Or perhaps she just fancied a morning out. It’s unclear.

Betty nudges her again, and Gemma, who knows the type, knows Betty won’t stop until her curiosity is sated, looks where she’s directed. It’s Tom Burrows, and it’s hardly a wave, more of an embarrassed hand signal. She sees him in the Star occasionally, elbow on the bar, pint in hand, holding court with that bellowing laugh. It’s like looking at a timelapse version of a memory. He’s got a bit more belly and a bit less hair these days, and she heard he manages his own team of scaffolders, has done all right for himself. They always nod and smile, never break their respective lines to do more than that.

‘We knew each other in secondary school.’ ‘Knew’ is doing a lot of work in that sentence, but she doesn’t need to go there out on the street.

Though, actually, she had gone there with Tom Burrows, out on the street. Not right here, on the high street – they may have been hammered (of course they were hammered;  they were teenagers in a tiny town), but you’d never know whose parents might wander past after closing time. Post-11:30pm encounters always ran the risk of your street cred being decimated by someone who used to change your nappy and wipe your nose.

"Of course they were hammered; they were teenagers in a tiny town."

Those who were really committed – committed to a longer fumble, not necessarily to each other –would head out into the woods that bordered the town, or to the picnic area on the brow of the A-road, though that place also catered to the unattached, hoping for some sexual exploration.

This is hardly the memory to be having now, though Nick would doubtless howl.


Gemma pulls her arms around her body, jolts as she recognises the person standing beside Tom. This is a better story. Or at least, one she’d rather share. ‘See the bloke next to him?’

‘The one with the baseball cap on backwards like he’s some kind of rap star?’

‘That’s the one.’ Betty is right. It’s a bad choice of headgear in about seventeen different ways, not least that the cap isn’t offering him any protection from the rain.

 ‘I chased him round a coffee shop in Birmingham once.’ She grins and across the road a startled Tom Burrows reciprocates with a somewhat panicked gurn.

‘You what, love? Friend of yours, is he? Or do you do that sort of thing a lot?’ Betty adjusts her plastic rain hat and her opinion of Gemma, peers at her through drizzle-dropletted glasses.

‘No! I’d never seen him before. Haven’t seen him since, either, ’til now. I heard his accent in Costa, and I knew he had to be from here.’

It had been funny, really, a primal tribal sonor activated. When she’d caught up with the bloke balancing a flat white and a fancy-looking Christmas Special back to a table, she’d asked him the obvious question – Where are you from? – and he’d answered exactly like she always does, telescoping down and down from the county to the nearest city, from there with ever-increasing delight to the cluster of villages surrounding the woods, ending only when they’d established that he’d been to school with one of her cousins. Round here there are lots of cousins, and not very many schools. A certain amount of overlap is inevitable.

"Round here there are lots of cousins, and not very many schools. A certain amount of overlap is inevitable."

‘Well!’ Betty, absorbed this, rated it against some invisible system for acceptable anecdotes. ‘You’re both back here though, that’s the main thing.’

It was the main thing, actually. And it was logical, really, that they’d both be back today. If he had known her cousin, then he’d doubtless have known Nick. It just hadn’t occurred to her to ask.

It’s not a cold day, but it’s not warm for April, either, and standing around has made her feet go numb. Gemma stamps down, blows into her cupped hands and claps them together until she realises she’s in danger of starting a deeply inappropriate round of applause. Public applause here is usually confined to decisions about building a new bypass. Broadly speaking, if you’ve lived here less than ten years, you’re in favour. The commute to the city from the new (‘new’ being a relative term) executive homes beyond Nick’s farm would be hugely helped by the bypass. But if you were, at a minimum, third-generation local, then your opinion will be coloured by an innate sense that paving over yet more fields could not be a good thing.

Nick’s going to be clogging up plenty of traffic today, which would ordinarily be fuel to the fire for the bypass supporters. But this is Nick; there are probably a few incomers melded in with the long-timers like her. She smiles to herself, taking care this time not to catch Tom Burrows’ eye. Citizenship of a place like this, a place that anyone outside a twenty-mile radius couldn’t locate on a map, is birthright in a manner that sometimes seems ridiculous. Gemma’s probably been living away from the area for longer than some of the ‘incomers’ have been resident. Yet she’ll always have the greater claim, always need to balance that with their looks of puzzlement that she’d left the place they’d opted into.

She hears it before she sees it. The tone of the crowd shifts gear, unifies as heads all turn in the same direction and idle chit-chat pauses. Underneath the voices, providing a bass note, Nick’s little old Massey-Ferguson 135. The one he’d inherited from his dad, the same way he’d inherited the farm. (Thank God Jack’s already dead, she thinks. This would finish the old boy off).

The tractor’s in view now, cresting the hill high up beyond the town. There are no pavements up there towards the lanes, but the police have given permission for the road to be closed for an hour and cars line the road, tucked tightly into the verge. And between the murmurs of the crowds and the bass rumble of the tractor comes now a percussive staccato as, all down the hill, car doors open and close as people get out and stand alongside them.

The Massey-Ferguson tilts down the first hill, coming past the turning to the bus station, past what used to be Woolies and is now a ‘doggie pamper palace.’ (Another way to tell the locals from the newbies: Stand and watch who enters the dog salon). The rumble intensifies, becomes a roar. Behind Nick’s tractor, keeping a respectful space that has nothing to do with social distancing, comes an old Fordson Dexta, followed by an MF 35X (God, the useless information she’d picked up from Nick and Becky over the years). Beyond them, more tractors, most of them older than her if the first few are anything to go by.

Nick’s tractor’s halfway up the second hill now, almost level with them, and the town fills with tractors, shiny bright, red and green, parakeets against the grey of gaping shop fronts. The combined force of their trundling fills the air with tremors that force themselves behind Gemma’s eyes, down her throat.

"The combined force of their trundling fills the air with tremors that force themselves behind Gemma’s eyes, down her throat."

‘Crikey-oh!’ Beside her, Betty grabs Gemma’s hand, her own dry, and trembling slightly.

The first tractor – Nick’s tractor – draws level. Unlike the rest of the procession, it’s towing a trailer. In that trailer, tightly bungee-corded and bestowed with all the orange and yellow flowers they could find, is a coffin. And inside the coffin is Nick.

Nick; her best friend’s husband. Nick, who’d been at school with her and Becky since they were eleven, had been devoted to Becky since they were fifteen, who was now, inexplicably, inside that box in his wedding suit rather than in the cab in his overalls.

There’s Becky. Sitting rigid in the cab, in Gemma’s black coat and underneath it (presumably) one of the six black dresses they’d ordered this week from the internet. She’s looking straight ahead, lips pressed together, but her arms as she passes are loose, not tense.

They’d tried to talk her out of driving the tractor. ‘They’ being almost everyone Becky had talked to in the last week. Her parents. Well-meaning friends, afraid she couldn’t drive and grieve. The vicar, as if he gets any say in how the coffin arrives. Johnny, Nick’s best friend, who’d said he’d do it instead.

‘Not a chance!’ Becky had told him. ‘You’ll be in a worse state than me. You just need to get yourself there.’ And – Gemma scrunches up her eyes, stares – there Johnny is, in the tractor behind, and Becky was right. Tears streaming down his face. Johnny blames himself, has walked the fields, the woods behind the house day after day, trying to make sense of things. ‘But it won’t make sense,’ Becky had told Gemma. ‘Nick’s gone. It’s not ever going to make sense.’

Becky hadn’t tried to convince anyone. She’d merely maintained that she was going to do it. She could drive a tractor as well as Nick. She’d bring him to the church, and then their best farm hand, Ben, would move the tractor and put it with the others in the field beside the river. Every farmer from here to the county boundary is here today, in that procession.

Gemma knows, when she gets back to the city, her friends won’t believe her. Will want to know: Does this happen for every farmer? What about the chaos it causes? Is it ethical/sanitary/safe to transport a man’s corpse through the streets of his homeland? The undercurrent will ebb and flow from incomprehension to a confirmation of values: The countryside’s a bit odd. We’re right to keep it at arm’s length. Thank goodness we live here, amongst civilised people.

The crowd’s dispersing now, the tractors turning away towards the church. Gemma waves goodbye to Betty, who’s off to see if the butcher can do her a bit of mince for her dinner. Gemma falls in with the thinner trickle of people heading to the service. She’s got a church to get to, a friend to grieve, another friend to comfort. The vertigo’s gone, replaced by a dull ache. Now come the hard miles.

Sarah Franklin is the author of two novels: Shelter (2017) and How To Belong (2020). She was a judge for the Costa Short Story Prize from 2015-2022, and is the founder/host of literary night Short Stories Aloud. She has written for publications including The Guardian, The Irish Times, the Seattle Times and Psychologies magazine, as well as short fiction for a variety of formats.

 Sarah grew up in the Forest of Dean, in Gloucestershire, and after stints all over the place, including Ireland and the Pacific Northwest, currently lives in a village halfway between Oxford and London with her family.

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