My Brother told me to meet him in our hometown of Chippenham. Neither of us had been there for a while, so I was to text him when I arrived, to give him directions to where I was.
There was heavy traffic driving out of Cheltenham, where I’d stayed the night at The 131. I’d wanted to leave the hotel early, before the early morning rush hour, but I’d lingered over an excellent breakfast of Muesli and fresh fruits, and the aroma of the coffee was so intoxicating, I hadn’t been able to resist a second cup.
I felt a curious mix of nostalgia and apprehension undertaking the trip back to the town I’d left over fifty years ago.
I wanted it to be the same as I remembered, but I knew in advance that it would be different. I just didn’t want it to be too different.
So many memories linked to the homes I’d lived in, the schools I’d attended, and the adventures I’d had as a young boy and although some of those memories had faded for good, those that remained were vivid.
These were souvenirs I’d desperately held on to, because, in many ways, they were the ones that moulded me into the man I am today.
As I had no real reason to go back, until now, I’d successfully avoided confronting the town I remembered, with the town it had become.
I sang with the radio to distract me in the traffic jams, and left town, heading South West.
Everybody seemed to want to quit Cheltenham at the same time this morning.
Eventually, the traffic dispersed, and I made up for time on stretches of dual carriageway along the A429 to Chippenham.
Water towers along the way reminded me of the games I used to play, defending castles with the gang going home from school and the sandstone houses were so different to the red brick houses I had become accustomed to farther north.
When I passed an Inn with a Skittle Alley, advertising Ale and real Cider, I knew I was truly in the West Country, and although I was still more than 15 miles away from Chippenham, the county of Wiltshire was already dispensing its stock of childhood memories.
Several roundabouts later, I drove into the town of Chippenham. Although familiar, it seemed shaken and reshuffled. I parked the car in a strange car park that had sprung up behind the high street. It was almost full, but a woman handed me her parking ticket with an hour left to use as she drove by me. It felt a little like a strange welcome home gift, although, of course, she wasn’t to know.
I left the Car Park on foot and walked up to the old bridge over the River Avon where I’d fished as a kid.
The memories were flowing unchecked now.
Too many, too soon and although I’d anticipated them in the car, I still felt unprepared.
I passed the Post Office where my Dad used to work, abandoned and boarded up. The Church where I’d sung in the choir was closed with a heavy padlock.
I proceeded slowly along the High Street scrutinising every building. Most of them were as I remembered but all the shops had changed. The streets appeared narrower, and the viaduct that carried the trains in and out of town wasn’t quite as high as I remembered.
All in all, the town that seemed so big when I lived there, now appeared quaint and small.
One of the only unchanged landmarks was the Angel Hotel on the other side of town, and I passed it by, searching for the Milk Bar I had spent so much time in after school and at weekends.
Of course, it closed years ago and was now a Costa Coffee.
I went in and ordered a decaf Expresso Macchiato. The Barista, a young girl with an infectious smile and pink hair, asked how I was doing, and I told her that this place used to house a Milk Bar. She just laughed as she tapped a jug of frothy milk on the counter, poured some over my Expresso and handed me my coffee on a tray.
I took a seat in an armchair in the corner, took out my phone, and called my Brother.
“I’m here in a Costa Coffee in the High Street.”
“On my way,” he replied and hung up.