The Wind Whisperer
Listen to the wind, it talks.
Listen to the silence, it speaks.
Listen to your heart, it knows.
Native American proverb
I cannot tell you why I first heard the voices, nor fully explain the truth behind what they say. I can only tell you that they are there, all the time, all around you and I right now. Words as real as the ones on this page are this very minute winding themselves through the air, twisting and turning, whispering and reverberating past your ears, hoping beyond hope that you can hear their stories.
But, most likely, you cannot. Most people hear nothing; their lives flow past like an oblivious breath of air, unaware and uninterested, until, sometimes, near the end, when the flame of life we cherish so dearly flickers and dims. Only then might we hear their words.
But for me, they have nearly always been there, guiding me through life; helping me, comforting me, making sense of everything.
So when I was told the news that morning in hospital I didn’t cry, because I already knew. I had always known.
The voices had told me long ago.
And when I close my eyes; when I listen to the wind teasing at the window, I can still hear their whispers – louder than they have ever been before.
And I cough, and I smile. And I remember their stories.
One of the strongest memories I have is of a train journey. I often dream of it, even now. In my dreams the journey is a good one; full of hope and purpose and understanding. I am sitting on my own, but I do not feel alone. Outside, magical fields of green and gold blur endlessly past, and the distinct, nostalgic smell of the engine’s smoke billowing in from a small gap in the window is familiar and comforting.
I look around. A girl and a boy sit opposite. The girl is older, about eight, and is holding the hand of the younger boy. They are both smiling.
I notice an old sepia-tinged scrap of paper on the train floor. It’s important, I know it is, but I choose to look away.
I enter a tunnel and everything goes black. I am going somewhere, somewhere incredible. The sound of the engine, echoing loudly from the charcoaled walls of the tunnel, intensifies, and so does my anticipation. I look back for the piece of paper. I can just see it amid the darkened gloom. I reach for it. The paper is thick and scratchy and one side of it is curled up as if it is trying not to be read. The train emerges from the tunnel, and the sudden sunlight dazzles my eyes, blinding me from reading what is written upon it. And then, in an explosion of colour, just as my eyes start to focus on the hand-scrawled blue ink, the dream ends.
I wake up with a knowing smile, and everything is clear. Like an old friend keen to stay in touch, this dream visits me on most nights.
But the memory is different. So very different. It is what the dream is based on, and although both versions share the same truth, it is a nine year olds’ memory, full of fear and hopeless confusion.
I am on a train, and the train is heading somewhere. Where? I do not know. All I know is that it is away from my home. Away from my family. And with every clickety-clack of the rails, for every sickly billow of smoke that wheezes in through the window, I am travelling ever further. Greyness dominates the view outside. Sad specks of rain scatter themselves intricately across the soot-smudged windows.
A girl and a boy are sitting opposite. The older girl is clutching the hand of the younger boy. Both are quietly crying. Both have fear in their eyes.
I notice a piece of scrap paper on the floor. It was attached to the small rucksack between my legs, but has somehow become loose. I know what it is for, but for some horrifying reason choose to look out of the window instead of picking it up.
I enter a tunnel and everything goes black. Fear, guilt and panic ambush my senses all at once. Alone and afraid, I cry out, but my screams are lost amidst the deafening roar of the train’s engines. A sudden realisation dawns on me as I drop to my knees in a desperate attempt to search for the piece of paper. But it is dark, and my feeling of fear is overwhelming. Tears stream down my face. My heart feels as if it is about to explode, and breathing begins to feel difficult. I have felt this way before. I know what is coming. But I know this time, when I come round, Mother won’t be there to hold me and comfort me. I know I must find the piece of paper. And as the train emerges from the darkness, it appears through my haze of tears. The words are written in blue ink. I reach for it. But it is too late. The girl stares at me. A sudden surge of heat races through my cheeks and consciousness loosens its grip on my senses. My eyes can’t focus. The piece of paper is within my grasp.
Then there is only darkness.
But this is not where my memory ends.
The loud sounds and smells of the train seemed like a distant dream as I opened my eyes. I was lying, quite comfortably, on a soft bed in a strange room. At first I thought I was in my own bed. I was disoriented and the damp, musty smell in the air reminded me so much of home. But as my eyes grew used to its surroundings I realised I was in a room I did not recognise.
Immediately, I could feel the panic rising through my body; the quickened breath, the racing heart rate, the stone-cold feeling of dread in the pit of my stomach. It was happening again. I was losing control. Living in constant fear was something I could never seem to get used to.
But then something caught my eye. It was a ripple of movement from the curtains. I glanced across. The curtains, old-looking and rather torn in patches, were billowing slightly in a breeze from the window. I gazed at them. Every now and then they would flap out and wave at me, then gently draw themselves back to rest against the window ledge. My mind became transfixed on their gentle, rhythmic movement, and without really knowing I was soon in a state of calm again. After a while, I was aware of the sound of birds chattering busily from beyond the window. And there were voices too; whispers drifting in on the breeze.
I slowly summoned the courage to look around. The room was small and darkened; only a tiny gap in the curtains allowing in any light. Every now and then the brightness would increase as the curtains exhaled, then, after a few moments, darkness would descend again. Aside from the bed, there were only two other items of furniture – both of which were made of dark, abrasive-looking wood; a tall chest of drawers set against the far wall, and a bed-side table supporting an old-looking oil lamp. For a moment curiosity overcame any worry or anxiety I may have felt as I cautiously shuffled my legs towards the edge of the bed. I sat up and immediately noticed I was wearing my own pyjamas. I took in a deep breath and glanced around the room once more. There was a figure of The Virgin Mary watching me on the wall. I stared at her for a moment. She seemed to stare back. A tiny muscle at the side of my mouth flickered the briefest of smiles, and then I looked away.
Easing myself off the bed, my toes curled themselves onto a cold, wooden floor. I tugged gently at one of the curtains and peered outside. The sun was trapped behind heavy, slow-moving clouds. I looked down. I could see into many gardens, separated by clumsy-looking wooden fences, but strangely, despite hearing voices, I could see no people. The houses opposite were grey, narrow and tightly packed. Most of the gardens seemed to be growing vegetables; there were very few flowers on show, despite it being early summer. Some of the gardens had strange shed-like buildings in them covered with earth, and nearly all of them had washing swaying and flapping purposefully in what seemed to be a rather bullish wind. But the thing that caught my eye the most was a very peculiar looking tree standing awkwardly at the end of the garden. It was wide and stunted and its thick branches were twisted and ungainly. The tree was half the size of the house opposite, with a sturdy charcoaled-coloured trunk. It looked as though its leafless body had died long ago, yet it stood there stubbornly as the wind whipped through its lonely shell.
There was something about the tree, as I stood there – cold and alone – that I couldn’t quite put my finger on. Something curious that held my gaze.
A door slammed from downstairs. Filled with renewed fear I darted back into the bed, pulled the covers over my head and closed my eyes tightly shut. Suddenly my mind was over-wrought with worry. I had no idea where I was, why I was here, nor who was downstairs. For the first time since being on the train my thoughts centred on my Mother. Why did she have to send me away? Heavy footsteps began trudging up the stairs. I curled into a tighter ball.
The footsteps became louder as they reached the summit of the stairway and edged across the creaking wooden floorboards towards the room I was in. They shuffled to a stop right outside the door. I could hear laboured breathing from the other side, even though the bed sheets were wrapped tightly round my head.
There was a pause. A gentle knock. Then the sound of the door slowly groaning open. The footsteps walked the short distance across the small room to the window where I had stared out from.
“It’s ok dear,” a warm, motherly voice said. “I won’t bite.”
I heard the curtains draw open and the darkness behind my eyelids grew faintly lighter. The smell of hot buttered toast wafted in from under the sheets and my stomach churned.
“You know,” the voice continued, “you can lie under there all day pretending to be asleep if you like. But I’m guessing after such a long journey and what you went through you’ll be wanting something to eat.”
The voice was soft, yet tinged with a hoarseness that comes with age. It had a subtle country accent, though I wasn’t sure where from. My breathing had eased slightly, but I was still too afraid to say anything. Instead, almost as a reply, my tummy rumbled loudly from beneath the sheets.
The woman chuckled gently as she lowered herself onto the end of the bed. “Tell you what,” she continued in a whisper, “if you come out from under there, I’ll let you have a bite of this here toast whilst it’s still warm – how’s that then?”
I lay there frozen, not knowing what to do. But the woman just sat there patiently. My stomach grumbled yet again. After a while, I summoned the courage to move. I carefully pulled back the sheet covering my head, and slowly opened my eyes.
A warm face gazed down at me. Her eyes were dark and welcoming, yet there was sadness in them. Straight away my breathing began to calm itself. The lady was quite old with tied back hair that was grey and frizzy round the edges. She had a plump face, with hard, tired lines set around her eyes and mouth. Her rosy cheeks glowed reassuringly and with a hearty smile she offered me the toast.
“There you go’s, you tuck right in to that.”
She handed me the plate and I took a small, tentative bite.
“You know, I have always been taught that it’s polite to say your pleases and thank-yous when someone’s been kind.”
I said nothing in reply. Instead, without looking away, I took another small bite of the toast.
After a few moments of silence I felt comfortable enough to concentrate my gaze on my food. I could feel the lady just sitting there watching me.
A ray of sun emerged from the clouds and lit up the room momentarily. I was aware of the birds singing outside once more. And again, entwined amongst their songs I could distinctly hear voices; soft voices, more like inaudible whispers from outside. I looked up at the woman. She was silhouetted by the sun shining in from the window.
“You ‘ad enough dear?” she asked, taking back the empty plate.
Again, I said nothing.
She placed the plate on the chest of drawers and, with a deep sigh, turned back to face me.
“My name’s Mrs Stancer,” she beamed, “but most folks call me Polly.” She held out her hand, but I sat there unmoved. “This here village is Long Strunton. You know you were coming here?”
Without thinking, I slowly shook my head.
“Ah,” she said stroking her chin gently, “I see.”
Again there was silence as she stared deep into my eyes. “Listen dear,” she whispered softly, “I know you’re a bit unsure en’ all, but you mind telling me your name? They tell me you passed out on the train, but there was no details on your belongings.” She reached out and held my hand. “No one knows who you are, dear.”
I could sense that feeling of dread bubbling in the pit of my stomach again. I withdrew my hand and took a nervous breath.
“It’s ok,” she said reassuringly, “you’re safe here, we were expecting someone, only we thought you might be a little older, you know, but you’re fine as you are dear, there’s no problem.” The lady drew her hands further up her face, and began rubbing her mouth before continuing. “Thing is, Jim’s gonna’ want to know what’s what by the time he’s home, only he’s not so easy going as me. He’s a decent man, don’t get me wrong, he’s just had it a little hard these last few years, you know, what with…”
The lady’s voice tailed off almost to a murmur. She bowed her head and rested her hands in her lap, fidgeting with her fingers. I couldn’t help but stare. Fresh whispers from outside seemed to ease themselves past my ears and I suddenly felt the urge to reach out and hold her. I wanted to tell her that everything was ok; that she didn’t need to worry. It was a strange sensation. I couldn’t understand why I should feel such a thing. But there was something so familiar about the old lady, even though I had only just met her.
She looked up and forced a smile. There were tears in her eyes. “At least tell me your name dear,” she said softly.
I stared in to those deep, dark eyes. For the first time since leaving London, I felt relaxed.
Before I could answer, the sound of the front door being opened and then violently slammed shut shook through the house.
A loud, deep voice boomed up the stairway; “COME DOWN ‘ERE POLLY!” it thundered, before adding; “AND BRING THE BOY!”
There was an air of desperation in Polly’s voice as she repeated her plea to me. “Your name dear, tell me your name. Please.”
I studied her face carefully. It was a torn face, full of mixed feelings of hope and despair and joy and fear. There was a vulnerability about Polly that I understood only too well.
“Frederick Burton, Ma’am” I replied calmly, “but you can call me Freddie.”