It seemed an age since he had last visited. Perhaps it was. That’s what growing up did to you. Changed your perception of time, of the passing of the years. He was here now anyway. And yes, it had been too many years since he had stood on this spot.
It had all seemed so much bigger then, so much brighter and more vibrant. So much more alive. Or was he now just seeing things as they had really been, without the rose-tinted spectacles that had coloured everything.
He walked through the undergrowth, pushing aside the fronds of the overgrown ferns to find a clear path. He could see the beach In front, still shimmering in the heat; its pale grains of sand glowing white in the midday glare of the sun.
God it was hot. And he was tired. Bone tired after all the travelling he had had to do to get here. But it had been worth it. He had forgotten just how beautiful everywhere looked, how the sea was the most perfect shade of blue, how the palm leaves shone with a deep glossy emerald hue, how the cliffs rose, tall and forbidding with sparkling granite outcrops refracting glints of light into his weary eyes.
He should have come back sooner. But he hadn’t. Until it was nearly too late.
He shaded his eyes as he looked out to sea. There, in the bay, the small yacht was waiting for him, its captain perplexed by his request to spend a solitary day here on this long abandoned island.
They had brought him here early in the morning, with supplies, although he was adamant that there was fresh water on the island and plenty of fruit to eat should he get hungry.
He had spent the first hours simply walking around the coast, till he got back to his starting point and his footsteps began to overlap. That had taken longer than he had thought, but it had been worth it; the opportunity to reacquaint himself with the land, to revisit old haunts, to remember happier times spent here.
Now it was time for the real purpose of his visit. He headed inland, struggling against the steep slope and the overgrown vegetation.
Sweating in the unaccustomed heat, he pushed through the undergrowth, feet slipping on the heavy layer of rotting vegetation that had built up over the years. In the distance he could hear the sound of water running in the small fresh stream that he had played in as a child. He struck out in the direction of the sound, wanting to drink from its cold freshness once more. It had not changed. Not much at any rate.
The stones were mossier, the stream bed a little deeper in its track, but he recognised it instantly, and there, there were the leftovers of the little dam he had built when he was seven. A small pool was trapped behind the last remaining stones that he had so carefully dragged and rolled into position. He recalled how heavy they had been. How he had struggled to move them at all.
Now he could lift them with one hand easily. Well maybe.
He sat down with care on a fallen tree trunk, looking at the water as it rushed by on its way to the sea. So much had happened to him in the past years, so many changes and yet this little stream was still here, still hurrying along, ignoring the world around it. If only he had been able to do that; to ignore the world, to live life as he had wanted to live it, doing the things he had wanted to do.
It was too late for pointless regrets. The past was in the past. Nothing could change what had happened.
He stood up, slowly, mindful of his failing body. It would be ironic if he fell and had to be rescued by the captain on the little yacht. Still not long now.
He held onto an overhanging branch and cautiously bent over the stream, dangling his hand in the water, and then sucking his fingers. Yes, just as he remembered. Cold and fresh; it made your teeth hurt if you drank it too quickly. He scooped up a cupped handful and drank it. His teeth hurt and he almost laughed aloud.
He smiled to himself as he stared into the distance, bringing to mind other drinks that he had enjoyed here. Cold beer, iced tea, champagne, but always the taste of fresh, crystal clear water.
Straightening up he turned inland and continued his slow journey uphill.
He could hear bird song getting louder as the noise from the stream faded into the distance. He had never been interested in the bird life; he left that pursuit to the others. Now music; that was something he enjoyed; listening to piano sonatas, etudes, concertos.
The others never realised how much it meant to him, and he would have been embarrassed to tell them, but he had loved it with a passion. He had never learned to play though. Another regret. Another unfulfilled wish.
The dense growth began to thin and he could see one of his objectives ahead of him. It was difficult walking the last hundred yards or so, the ground was rough and he was tired, but eventually he made it and stood there, sweating and satisfied in the shade of the ruins.
He hoped he would be able to find a way down inside, but if not then he would have to forgo this part of his visit. After all, he had never intended coming to this place; his real destination was further on.
The underground passageway was, by some miracle, still viable. He had brought a torch in his small rucksack and as he entered the gloom he switched it on. The light cast dark shadows in the tunnel, shadows that would have scared him when he was a boy, but he had seen enough, and done enough in his life to know that mere shadows were nothing to be afraid of. He walked on, careful not to bump his head on any protrusions.
And then, there she was.
Still standing, proud, streamlined, ready for action. His eyes blurred with unbidden tears, tears that also blurred the unmistakable streaks of rust that scored her grey sides, that had eaten away at her once magnificent outline. She would never fly again, would never soar into the sky, would never create a noise so loud that it would stop whole cities as people stood to watch her pass.
It was too much. Wiping away the tears that fell he turned and abandoned her, alone once more; left her to her slow death, to her eventual collapse into a twisted heap of rotting metal.
He should not have come. He could not bear the thought of going to see the others.
He fixed his mind on his real destination. It was another long, lonely walk and he was getting very tired by now. He had a bar of chocolate in his rucksack and he ate that slowly, his energy somewhat renewed. But he was still lonely.
He wished he had someone with him to share this day. Someone who understood what he was doing and why he was here, But there was no one left. He was the last.
And he had one last duty to do.
It took him nearly two hours to reach the last building. As a child he would have run the distance in less than ten minutes. That was what age did to you. It stole everything, your energy, your health, your family, your memories.
Except he still had his memories and he was determined not to lose them to old age. No. Never.
He was surprised that the last building was still standing. He had expected it to have been the first to collapse, given its unusual construction. He managed to force open the doors and he stepped inside. It smelled sweetly sickening, like warm rotting vegetation, and he noticed the growths of intruding plants that had forced their way inside. The carpet had long since been eaten by mould and the few remaining pieces of furniture were slowly returning to their component parts, decaying wood, rusting metal, flaking leather.
It didn’t matter. He was not here for this.
He found the emergency access tunnel. It had been so long that he feared that he might have forgotten where exactly it was, but no, one look and it was as if he had been here just yesterday.
Gods she was beautiful. Even after all this time. He stared at her with blind love, not seeing the faded paintwork, the long lines of corroded metal that scored her sides. She was as lovely as the day he first saw her. Even in the gloom of the cavern he could still see her gleaming in the sparse patches of sunlight that filtered through the space in the roof, now overgrown with lianas and creepers.
He stepped forward, into her shadow, closer and closer until he was once more able to touch her.
‘Hello,’ he muttered, his voice breaking with emotion. ‘I’m here. It won’t be long now.’ and he patted her gently, feeling the oxidation blisters under her once pristine skin.
The service lift had ceased working years ago, and he had to rely on the stairs to get to where he wanted to be. Even then it was tricky; some of the treads were suspiciously thin and he took his time.
Then he was there. He could hardly believe it after all these years. To finally be here once more. To be able to slide into the seat as if the intervening years had never existed. To place his hands, those crippled and age spotted hands on her controls, to feel the pedals still move beneath arthritic feet.
He flicked switches, praying that he had done everything correctly when he had powered her down for the last time all those years ago.
He held his breath. A small light flickered and then went out. Another flickered but stayed lit. And then in one glorious symphony of synchronised lighting she burst into life, humming gently to herself as she tested her circuits and pumped life-giving fuel through her veins.
His chair was shredded with age, the metal framework revealing itself, but he could not remember being as comfortable for a very, very long time.
It was time.
He took a deep breath. Leaned forward. Pressed the controls that he had thought he would never touch again. He spoke to himself as he did so; the words he would have spoken to his mission controller had one been listening.
‘Main engine 3 start command, main engine 2 start command, main engine 1 start command.’
‘Ignition. Holddown release command.’
‘Thunderbird Three has ignition. Liftoff.’’
And she did. After all the years of solitude, of loneliness, after the long wait for him to return to her, she rewarded him with her trust, her love, her power, and she flung herself one last joyous time into the sky.
She did not care that her body was failing, that this was probably her last flight. He had returned to her. That was all that mattered. She had longed for his return, ached to hear his voice, to feel his hand on her skin once more. And he had not failed her. He was here. With her. She knew what he wanted her to do. She could feel it in every movement of his tired, failing body. He wanted her to give him one last flight, one last gift. He would ask her to blaze a magnificent trail through the sky across the ocean, over the cities so that people below would stand in silence to watch her pass for one last time. And then she would return home, but not to land in her cradle, to stand there for yet more empty years.
No she would fall like a meteorite, a blazing star coming to land for one final time on Earth, crashing with all her strength back onto the island that had sheltered her for so many years. It would be her last gift to him, and his last gift to his long departed brothers; to ensure that their precious machines, the long-redundant Thunderbirds, would never be discovered.
He closed his eyes as she began her final journey. Content, at peace, together at last for one last flight home.