Short Stories

RedTreeThe Wisdom of Trees

Monday. Most folk used the town park to walk their dogs, so although only a short distance from the Roundwood estate it was rare to bump into anyone in Hartsford Wood. With no one around, Sharon moved through the copse, her secateurs snipping off the most feathery hazel twigs: pea sticks for the back garden. Alfie scented a rabbit and shot off. Now, he yapped wildly from somewhere deep within a tangle of elder and honeysuckle. Eventually he would reappear on the footpath, sans rabbit.

She rested beside one of the thick-trunked oak pollards that mark the woodland boundary and glanced up and down the ride for any sign of her dog. Something caught her eye. She pushed two fingers into a rot hole and withdrew a sheet of paper, folded into four and rather damp. There was something else in there, too. A plastic ring with chipped gold lacquer and a pink stone. For some reason the sight made her smile. She read the note.

Dear Tree

Thank you for listening to my ramblings.
I always feel better after talking to you.
I am growing one of your children in a yoghurt pot.
One day, I will plant it nearby.

The note was printed, as if the writer had not yet learned to join. The spidery handwriting revealed little but the spelling and punctuation were faultless. Typical teacher, Sharon. It’s not some kid’s homework. She inhaled deeply and looked around in time to see Alfie emerging from a thicket of brambles, panting and dog happy.

What to do? She tapped the note on her hand. I could just refold it and put it back along with the ring, pretend I’d never found it. With Alfie’s lead fastened, she re-read the note. I can’t imagine that any interference from me would be welcome. And with that she returned the things to their hidey-hole. As she walked home, the ring loitered on the threshold of remembrance, gently teasing her.

Although now past suppertime, the note still occupied her thoughts. She put her plate and cup on the draining board and looked out into the garden. It was the right decision; I don’t even know any boys named Billy. If William had been there, she would have brought the note home to show him. They would have had a chuckle over it, and next day she would have returned it to the tree.

She could hear the schoolboys as they walked by the front gate in the morning. The high school didn’t have a great reputation but the passing children looked happy enough. She wondered if one of them was Billy. He must be an unusual boy if he chats to trees. Perhaps I should try it. It makes about as much sense as talking to Alfie.

Tuesday. This morning, there was no sun. She took her usual route and spent some time at the pond, watching tadpoles. Her thoughts kept drifting back to the tree and the note. It was still there. She felt in her pocket for the rather pretty shell, one that William had found on a beach in Dorset, and swapped it for the ring. On impulse, she wrote underneath Billy’s name I hope the shell brings you luck.

From the bedroom window, she watched the children strolling home from school. One boy walked by himself. Could that be him? I wonder what he says to the tree that he cannot share with family or friends.

Wednesday. This time, the note was dry.

Dear Tree

Thank you for the shell. You are old and wise.
You have listened to my stories and I feel you might know me better than I know myself.
Perhaps one day you can tell me who I am and what I might do with my life.
Regards Billy
PS I hope you like the stone. Its name is Mottle.

She took the note home, along with the pebble. After tea, she sat with both in her lap, and re-read the note. Then she examined the rock, holding it close to her face and rotating it slowly. Just holding the stone in her palm felt deeply comforting. Mottle. Where had the boy found it, she wondered. It looks pink enough to be granite; I’m no expert but I do know there are no granite outcrops within a hundred miles. I must check.

She found William’s rock collection in the spare bedroom: handsome stones collected on beaches and riverbanks throughout their married life, with every specimen labelled carefully in a spidery hand. These stones were special. The act of being chosen naturally makes you special – ask any child.

Alas, four specimens were missing, including the granite. After pushing the box back under the bed, she sat and drew breath, letting her eyes rest on the photograph on the bedside table that showed them standing on the deck of their yacht in some French harbour – she could not remember which one. Two years into our retirement and you have to go and die on me. Their boat was still moored somewhere.

She and William had met in the first form at the town’s grammar school. Both shy and bookish, it did not take long for them to become library companions, and then proper friends. After university, they married and set up home in this house.

After he’d gone, she couldn’t be bothered keeping up with anyone. What would have been the point? All her friends still worked at the school. She couldn’t have endured listening to them talk endlessly about the job.

These days, nothing ever seemed to be in the right place and she spent an hour searching for notepaper. Once found, she sat for ages just staring at a blank page. What are you doing, Sharon? Leaving a shell’s one thing. Writing a letter to a young boy and pretending it’s from a tree is something else entirely. You are losing it, girl. They’ll put you in a home if you’re not careful.

Still, it seemed rude not to reply.

Dear Billy,
 Thank you for your splendid gift.
Yes, certainly I am old although I would dispute the ascription of wisdom.
But just imagine if Mottle could speak, what stories it could tell, what deep philosophy it might have devised.
Our trivial hopes and dreams often blind us to the infinite.
A speck of matter that has seen fifty million summers rather puts our short stay on Earth into context, don’t you think?
My advice is not to concern yourself with the future because that’s not where we live.
Life happens in the here and now.
We are all works in progress.
So, what do you want to become?
 Your friend Tree

She could hardly undo forty years of English teaching and hoped the language did not sound too flowery. She’d accompany it with one of her tiny animal carvings.

Thursday. At her age, a fall from bed was serious. Alfie had to be content with the back garden for a few days. Her hip felt sore; nevertheless, she managed to pick up the newspaper and fetch in the milk. At the front door, she spotted a boy scrabbling beneath the hedge.

“Hey, what are you doing?”

The boy stood, holding a tennis ball. “Sorry, Miss, my friend…”

 “Billy, do you know a student called Billy?” The boy shrugged. His mates were of no help either. Apart from Alfie, Sharon couldn’t remember the last time she’d spoken to anyone. Her voice sounded odd: croaky and thin, like it wasn’t her voice at all.

By Saturday, she felt steady enough to venture out. She discovered her hat in the bathroom of all places. By some means, Alfie had managed to attach his lead by himself and now scampered excitedly around the living room.

She stooped to lift the newspaper off the doormat. Beneath lay a folded sheet of paper, addressed with a single word. Tree. Her stomach plunged, and to stop herself collapsing she flopped onto the stairs. How could this happen? Did he follow me? Why is it addressed to the tree?

Alfie’s frantic scratching at the front door roused her and she pushed herself up. She’d had an idea. This note is for the tree so I shall give it to the tree, then when I finish my walk I shall read it.

Later, she sat with her back against the tree and unfolded the paper.

Dear Tree
 This will be my last letter.
I think you know why.
You have taught me that life is mysterious, that not all of the time will everything make complete sense.
Thank you.
 Love Billy

 A cufflink, decorated with an anchor, had fallen out of the note. She felt in her pocket to retrieve its twin, and laid them together on her palm. Her sparse thoughts, rising through treacle, groped for a plausible explanation. But none came. So this is how it ends. You foolish girl, gone soft in the head. Clever you, Bill, to go so quickly.

Her thoughts were disturbed by Alfie’s yelps from the undergrowth. He sounded different. She knew his rabbiting bark, but she could not remember the last time he had barked like this.

The dog leapt from the bushes and stood on the path facing her, tongue out, tail wagging furiously, enormously pleased about something. Then a figure, a boy in his early teens, dressed rather formally in a jacket and long shorts, emerged to join him. He walked towards her, Alfie at his side, to halt a dozen feet away. He seemed in no hurry.

Sharon clutched her mouth and tried not to stare. He looked so familiar – perhaps she’d seen him passing the front gate.

“Are you Billy?”

The boy nodded.

Alfie allowed her to attach his lead. “I liked your note, although I didn’t really understand it.”

He smiled, too shy to speak.

“Will you be here another time? Would you explain?”

Again, the boy nodded, and then he turned and began to walk away, hands in pockets, down the long ride until finally becoming lost from view among the shafts of dusty sunlight.

They headed home. Tomorrow, she would return.