It’s late July and the reflection of the foliage gives the canal water a green tinge, like a swamp. Up ahead is a glut of Friday evening drinkers, spilling out of the bars, draping over the locks and the bridges. The road has been repaved since I last walked this way, but even still I shuffle along slowly. Every step is treacherous at my age. Advancing years, they say, as if an entire life is just the body careening at high speed towards a brick wall.
I stumble past knobbly tree trunks and business women in pencil skirts and trainers. I pass couples out walking their dogs: sturdy stumps of men, their willowy girlfriends. By a clump of overgrown rushes, the path splits, one fork leading up to the roadway, the other tapering in a muddy incline towards the water’s edge. I must be careful here. Under the bridge I touch the slick stones, and the saturated moss separates beneath my fingers. Not much grip. With each step I tap the ground ahead with my toe before committing to the soggy earth. Fat black brogues squelch in the mud, and my white stockings stretch like bandages over thick ankles, splattered with canal water. For a second I’m confused. I must have left my walking stick back at the bridge. No time to worry about that though, I’m on my knees and digging, clawing at the slime. I know what I’ll find – a loose stone, and underneath, a box with an iron lock. The key is on a chain around my neck. Jimmy said we’ll open it together when he comes home from France. One day soon, Jimmy said. Mud oozes through my fingers and soaks my knees where my stockings have torn. Jimmy said he’ll give me the ring that’s hidden inside, the one that belonged to his mammy –
I hear someone approaching. “Come along now Mary.” Helpful hands guide me to my feet, and I’m back on the path again, flanked by two women in white. I look down at the green mud dangling from the silken fibres of my tights. I look up at the blue sky and the clouds like cotton wool. I let the women steer me along. One says: “You’ve ruined your lovely stockings Mary.” The other: “Never mind now, we’re almost home.”
I examine my muddied, wrinkled hands. The key. One ragged breath in, like a whimper. I grasp at my neck for the key, but it’s not there. In its place are two pendants of hard fibre, tied together with a leather bootlace, frayed and worn from years of worrying. I rub the octagonal disc between my thumb and the aching knuckle of my index finger, like I’ve done it ten thousand times before. My breathing slows. The surface is smooth now, but I imagine I can still feel the faded indent of the letters “R.A.F” burning on the surface, and his name, “BENNETT” curved along the bottom, like a smile.