He scrambled up the last metres and the morning sun burst over the crest of the hill.  Light poured from a dark cloud bank, engulfing the distant hills, and coloured the stony soil under his feet a flickering red.  A breeze flowed across the ridge.  He took a deep breath, filling himself with the scent of spring.  Slowly, the dale beyond the ridge began soaking up the sun, while the valley from where he had come was still resting in the grey of dawn.


He had climbed up a steep, quite overgrown track through low bush and scrub.  Now he turned south, jogging along the ridge and following the path up and down its humps.  The fresh air cleared his head which was heavy after a restless night.  One of his two small children was ill and had kept on waking up, crying.  He could see his house now, still unlit in the slumbering new residential area;  his wife might have gone to sleep again.


The ground was turning a bright yellow and the Harbour City sprang to life with thousands of windows reflecting sun beams.  The surface of the sea began to sparkle and its blue colour was spreading across the harbour, slowly pushing the shadows further and further east.


It was a long run, following the ridge towards the sea, until he  would descend to the hub of the morning traffic, leaving the peace and solitude of the hills for the last mile of his trip.  This was his way of going to work, exercising at the same time.



* * *


He had grown older, but he well remembered these early morning runs now that he was here again climbing up to the ridge on a spur where a firebreak was cleared regularly.  He had not been able to find the old track through the bush again.  Worse still, impenetrable gorse had spread along the edge of the bush.


He was sweating profusely.  Was he so unfit or was it because of the midday heat of this summer day?  The air was thick with the smell of the sun-drenched foliage and of the persistently moist soil underneath.  At the top of the ridge he leant against the stem of a lone cabbage tree whose leaves were fluttering in the wind.  While enjoying the view he forgot the unpleasant scene at home.  His son wanted to drop out of school and there had been a strong argument.


How long had it been since he had come up here?  They had moved to a bigger house since then.  The suburbs were now sprawling right up the valley, joining each other without any gaps but for the green patches of the parks.  Residential areas were creeping upwards to the very tops of the western hills.  In the valley beyond the ridge, homes and gardens had replaced paddocks. 


The peace that lay over the landscape calmed his nerves.  The harbour basked in the summer sun and yachts dotted the water around the island that sat there like a fat contented duck.  Haze blurred the hills that marched in rows far away to the east.



* * *


Then there was another time when once more he climbed up the same range of hills.  He slipped frequently on the wet track that tunnelled through the humid bush of the nature reserve.  It was here that he once used to come down on his runs to work.


Occasional bird calls broke the silence.  The late afternoon sun now and then stabbed through the dark mass of clouds rolling in from the north.  Gusts of moist wind scraped the fronds of tree ferns against each other.  The rays hardly warmed the green thicket, the gusts barely chilled it.  Once he would get up to the spur leading to the ridge, he would look at the town below, as he had done in previous years.  He might even see as far as his house which would stand there dark and empty, perhaps indistinguishable from the surrounding homes.


The last week he had spent in it entirely alone,  numb and cold.  They had taken his wife away to the cemetery flanking the hills farther north.  He had always hated that graveyard neglected and impersonal as it was.  "My children have still not returned to this country," he mused bitterly.


The last part of the track, before it climbed out of the bush on to the crest of the spur, was steep.  Had it always been like that?  He remembered jumping up and down that bit of track, years ago.  He stopped, panting, his heart throbbing against his rib cage like an imprisoned bird.  Dizzy he grabbed at a branch.  "I might not even make it! he muttered glumly.


But he did.  Then he stood there looking at the profuse red light emanating from the clouds over the western hills.  The sun was setting early as the shortest day was near.  He felt the chill of the wind that spat droplets of rain into his face and, shivering, he drew his jacket closer to his body.  He felt stifled, despite the freshness of the air.  Visions arose of many early hopes and dreams, of the hard work filling day after day, and of the many goals that would remain unachieved, of so many tasks undone.


There was this giddiness again and gingerly he sat down on the cool damp ground.  In the valley more and more lights were turned on.  The day was drawing to its close.


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