The summit of the hill was in touching distance. Once there, I feared being greeted by another sea of empty and arduous valleys. I could not keep going. I was carrying too much and needed a place to rest. My body was full of aches, my clothes riddled with holes and my hand struggling to keep hold of the old rugged suitcase that was so heavy it was almost bursting at the seams.
To my pleasant surprise, though, what I instead saw was the midnight glow of a distant town. The sight calmed my heart and hastened hope. I ventured towards it.
Entering the town I was struck by the stillness that quickly engulfed me. I feared my dragged steps would awaken eyes and usher in suspicion. The whole place was serene and tidy, with the polished black lamp-posts beautifully lighting the cobbled streets, quaint houses and gloriously coloured hanging baskets. For the first times in ages, I forgot about my own weight and dirt. I was lost in the beauty and peace of this homeliest of towns.
The moment did not last long, as I was promptly awakened by the sudden concern of where to stay for the night. Many houses looked asleep, whilst the windows of others were faintly lit by the warmth of a lamp so cosy that it felt a crime to interrupt. Turning one corner I immediately noticed a small wooden door ajar. I cautiously stepped towards it to catch a glimpse of what or who lay within. What caught my eye first was the sign on the door.
‘For the Heavy Laden’, it read.
Before my mind could piece together what the words meant, I heard a deep voice.
‘Young traveller, please come on in’.
Such words from a complete stranger, especially from one I could not see, would normally provoke a cautious response, and yet the opposite happened. The words were spoken with an indescribable warmth and gentleness, as if the man was expecting me and genuinely liked me. I felt compelled to explore further.
My left hand slowly pressed open the creaking door, my wide-open eyes stayed to the ground. I knew I was entering somewhere special and to look straight ahead and quickly take it in felt an injustice. Keeping my eyes low enabled a gradual awakening, which felt more fitting.
I first noticed the wooden floor, each beam brilliantly brown and snug. Following this, I saw the legs of a table and two chairs, all of which were a lighter brown and more articulately cut. Behind them was a fireplace, alight with flames that perfectly lit and conditioned the whole room.
The table, now firmly in focus, was seemingly set for a meal for one. Alongside a wooden jug and mug, both filled with water, I could see steam rising from a bowl and a small loaf of bread. The smell delightfully suggested chicken soup and freshly baked bread.
One of the chairs was then gently pulled back by someone, gesturing for me to sit and eat. I raised my eyes further still and there moving the chair was a man who raised a smile so slight yet so kind. Looking into his eyes, it was as if the man knew me better than I knew myself.
I sat down and thoughtfully broke off some bread and dipped it into the soup. As I swirled the bread round the bowl, the man asked me a question.
‘Can I take your suitcase?’
The question stilled my revolving hand. ‘Where to?’ I asked.
‘Somewhere far from here. You do not need it anymore. Let me take care of it.’
For years I had carried around this suitcase. It was full of clothes and items old and torn. As I journeyed further, with no other bag to hold everything, the case got fuller and heavier, and with it my walk grew increasingly weary. It never really occurred to me to make it lighter by letting anything go. This was my stuff, all of which I was responsible for, and I felt obliged to carry it wherever I ventured, regardless of how heavy it felt or how torn its contents became.
Inwardly I initially resisted the man’s request, not understanding why he would want the suitcase or what he would do with it. There was nothing in there of note – in fact, you would struggle to find a home for half the stuff were you to give it away. Not only that, in all honesty there were a few things in there I was ashamed to own, so I was somewhat uncomfortable at the idea of it being opened for others to see. It would leave me feeling rather exposed. And besides, there was the small issue of what exactly would replace it.
Our eyes silently locked into each other’s for what seemed like hours but in reality were just a few seconds. The resistance quickly softened and I knew deep within that he really would take care of it. I had no clue what was going on – I did not know who he was or where he would go or what he was doing – but trusting him with my suitcase, at that moment, seemed paradoxically the oddest yet safest thing to do.
‘Sure,’ I said.
‘OK. I’ll be back. Before I go, let me grab your dinner and dessert.’
The man enthusiastically trotted through a door that stood beyond my table. What smelt like a waft of heaven quickly poured out as the man entered. It was dinner. If the smell was anything to go by, I was in for a treat. A few minutes later the man reappeared, first laying down a large plate with a medium-cooked steak (just how I like it!), crispy chips, cooked mushrooms, two fried eggs and two cooked tomatoes. He then lay down dessert and it was my favourite – banoffee pie!
‘That should keep you going for a while! Do make yourself at home here. I’ll be back shortly’.
At that, he picked up the bedraggled and heavy suitcase, like it was his very own, offered a smile which I now felt I had known for years, and headed through the creaky front door. Behind him he closed the door with a finality that seemed oddly significant. For a moment or two I stared at the wooden door, not quite sure what to make of what had just happened.
The alluring smell of steak quickly interrupted my gaze and, without hesitation, I dug into dinner. Surveying the room whilst savouring each bite, I noticed a wooden bench, beautifully cushioned at either end, that looked out of a square window. After polishing off the main course, I immediately grabbed dessert and made a beeline for the bench.
The window looked out onto a moonlit small forest that looked primed for exploration at a lighter hour. Above and through the scattered trees was the clear night sky, filled with countless and illuminated stars. It was all so beautifully sweet – the banoffee pie, this view, this place.
My eyes soon drifted into a sleep. Perhaps five or so hours later, I was awakened by the dawning sun and the singing birds. As my mind began reviewing what had led me to this place, the man walked in – without the suitcase.
‘Hey!’ I offered back, still curiously at peace with this man I had only just met.
‘All taken care of. Now follow me.’
I was tempted to ask what he had done with the suitcase, but it did not seem to matter anymore, so I quickly jumped up and followed him through another door that stood to the right as you came in the entrance. Three paces down the wooden hallway, on the right hand side, was a room. The man turned towards me and motioned me to enter.
‘This is your new room’.
‘Say what?’ I quickly replied.
The man did not answer, his silence instead prompting me to explore further. It was wonderful. It was not a huge room, nor unnecessarily filled, but had everything one would need and laid out in a way that felt personal and homely. Further to my amazement was noticing the wardrobe filled with a whole new set of clothes – all rich in colour, beautifully clean, neatly stocked and perfectly sized.
Taking a step back, I realised I had here far more than when I arrived the previous night. I did not lack a thing.
‘I’ll let you bath and get changed. Oh, the clothes and shoes you are wearing now, just leave them outside your door and I’ll take care of them.’
He affectionately winked at me, left the room and shut the door behind him.
Washed and clean, and wearing new attire, I headed back to the room I first entered in. The man was there at the table, writing down something or other. I did not know what I needed to do or where I was to go. I think the man could sense my unease.
‘When the time is right I will fill you in on the details. For now, go for a walk in the town. There is much more to see.’
I headed out the front door I had entered the previous night. Walking the cobbled streets I was suddenly struck by how light I felt. Yes, I was wearing new clothes and no longer did I have that suitcase, but the lightness far exceeded that, so much so that I couldn’t help but think that the man had taken care of far more than the contents of that burdensome suitcase. It was as if the new clothes and empty hands were the reflection of something so much deeper and more significant.
I couldn’t wait to find out more.