Sycamore tree - Wikipedia commons
‘Tom, I’ve just read some frightful news!’ Jill Hadley lowered the bulging Saturday shopping bag to the carpet and slithered wearily out of her black midi-coat. Her husband rose from his comfortable armchair and switched off the television. He turned enquiring grey eyes to her.
It’s our tree.’
She nodded. ‘They’re going to kill it…’ She shrugged her slight shoulders helplessly. ‘I know it’s only a tree, Tom – but it’s meant so much to us, hasn’t it?’
‘Yes, it has. Lots.’
Jill handed him the local newspaper’s early edition and pointed to the headlines – COUNCIL PLANS DUAL CARRIAGEWAY. She sat down miserably. ‘And it’ll run right through that plot of disused land…’
It was true, she would miss that tree. Really, they both would. It held a special place in their hearts.
Almost seventeen years ago now – with Tom’s attentive help – she had planted the sycamore sprig in the patch of waste land. She had been about seven then. And, as they had grown, so had their tree. In those days, they had visited the sapling most weekends, eager to nurture its growth.
Tom grimaced. ‘I suppose we must forget sentiment where progress is concerned, Jill.’ He didn’t sound particularly convincing.
That sycamore had shared much of their lives. She recalled one day well. Cloudy, a slight chill in the air. Tom had tentatively embraced her for the first time. That moment had been the beginning when she realised Tom meant more to her than all her other boy friends at school.
And as they had kissed beneath the young tree’s sun-seeking boughs, Jill had felt the protective presence of their tree.
Before they parted that day, Tom had taken a pocket-knife from his corduroy jacket and delicately carved a small heart and their initials on the strong bark…
‘There’s nothing we can do about it, Jill,’ Tom said resignedly, disturbing her reverie.
‘Couldn’t you apply for permission to uproot the tree? We could plant it in the yard. Surely the landlord wouldn’t mind?’
Tom grinned. ‘I’ll give it a try, at least, love.’
It was amazing how quickly the tree had grown and spread forth until its leaves were almost as huge as dinner-plates; every vein and artery a fascination. Many a showery evening they had found adequate shelter under its ponderous arms.
Her heart tripped as she thought again of that night of electric storm. Tom had been hurrying her across the waste ground – a short cut – when the storm broke. It was a rather nasty ending to an otherwise marvellous day of carefree shopping. They had been laden with parcels, Tom wielding a new fishing-rod clumsily as he ran.
She remembered pausing under the tree to glance at the rain dribbling down the grooves of their heart carved in the trunk. Then a sudden stark flash above and she was sure her heart must have stopped beating as the lightning-struck branch fell at their feet.
There was no reason to say a word. She knew they were both fully aware that the branch had obstructed the lightning and prevented Tom and his metal rod being hit.
Ever since that stormy evening, the tree had continued to flourish unperturbed save for its one severed and burnt limb – as through the charred stump were raised aloft as a sign of some sort.
Tom was at work when the landlord came up to see her about their request to transplant the tree.
Over a cup of tea, the slightly-bald man remarked, ‘I’ve been liaising with the Council on the matter, Mrs Hadley.’
His watery blue eyes evaded hers. The melancholy droop of his greying moustache made her apprehensive.
He cleared his throat. ‘It’s generally considered that the tree’s already too large for transplanting. And its possible inclusion in the yard has met with unfavourable response, I’m afraid.’ He drained his cup and nervously wiped his thin pale lips with the back of his bony hand. ‘I’m sorry.’
Well, it had been quite a wild idea. Even so, she was tempted to uproot it herself!
During dinner, Jill told Tom what the landlord had said. ‘I know it’s rather silly, Tom, but…’ She hesitated.
‘You want to say goodbye, is that it?’
Suddenly flushed, she gazed down at her fumbling fingers. ‘Yes.’
‘Look, I can get an extra half-hour off for lunch tomorrow. I’ll meet you at the tree and we’ll eat sandwiches there, just like it used to be.’
As her fingers lovingly traced the old grooves of their initialled heart, Jill noticed a smartly-dressed little old lady scrutinising them. ‘Who’s that?’ she whispered over her shoulder at Tom, who was busy unwrapping their sandwiches.
Before he could reply, the woman walked up to them.
The strain of trying to recognise them was evident in her flickering alert brown eyes. Then she gasped, pleased with herself. ‘I know you two youngsters,’ she declared, smiling gently.
‘Oh’ Jill said.
Nodding her small head repeatedly now, the old lady pursed her thin unpainted lips. ‘Indeed. This is your tree,’ she said emphatically. ‘You used to come at weekends to prune and water it.’ Her eyes took on a glazed hue at the memory. ‘Yes.’
She glanced about her, at the rusty cans and bicycle wheels, the charred remains of November bonfires, the barren mounds of parched earth all around. Her gaze returned to the wounded but proud sycamore, sturdy and unbowed in the midst of so much chaos.
‘There’s many a day I’ve just watched you both. Cutting back the weeds, keeping the rubbish away.’
A hope of some kind sprang into Jill’s breast as the woman said: ‘I’ve watched you both tender your tree over the years, ever since you planted the stray sapling as your own…’
Tom’s arm proudly encircled Jill’s shoulders.
‘It’s a great pity the road has to be here to spoil all your love and care.’ Faintly, the old lady’s slight chest sighed, her fox-fur ruffling. ‘But the road must go through. I do believe it must…’
Tom nodded. ‘That’s life, I suppose.’ He shrugged, squeezing Jill in sympathy.
But Jill wasn’t resigned to the tree’s fate yet. ‘No!’ she suddenly exclaimed. ‘Why must roads always destroy? Shouldn’t a tree, a field of buttercups, a dell of bluebells, shouldn’t they be more important than Tarmac and concrete?’
She felt Tom’s restraining hand clasp her shoulder urgently. ‘Jill, we’re only two people – the road’s needed by thousands.’
She eyed the old woman. ‘Why must the good things be lost for progress, economy and efficiency?’ Jill wanted to know. ‘Is it wrong to love nature, to have a favourite tree, a special brook, to adore the flowers and birds’ Tears welled. She blinked them away. ‘I’m sorry,’ she murmured, ‘I am getting over-sentimental.’
‘That’s all right, dear. I quite agree with you – but, unfortunately the way things stand, roads like the one planned here are inevitable.’
The letter arrived next morning, just as Tom was leaving for the office. Because it looked official, with the Borough seal, he lingered as Jill read it.
Her eyes widened, glistening. ‘Oh, Tom!’
‘What is it, love?’ He took the letter.
‘The little old lady – she’s the Mayoress! She’s managed to persuade the authorities to transplant the tree to St Mark’s Children’s Home.’
He hugged her. ‘That’s fairly near us.’
Jill held Tom’s hand tightly as they neared the end of their visit to St Mark’s. They had purposefully saved one item on the itinerary until last.
Across the green sward, she spotted two ten-year-olds carving their heart alongside Tom’s and hers.
Strangely, she found she didn’t resent sharing their tree of love. Now it would be able to watch over another generation of young lovers.
‘Live to a ripe old age, tree,’ she whispered.
Previously published in Competitors’ Journal, 1972.
Copyright Nik Morton, 2015.
‘The Tree’ was a runner up in a regular competition, and was my fourth paid published short story. The strapline for the story read: ‘It was a special part of their lives – and now condemned to die.’ When advised that I was a winner, I was asked to provide a photograph – which I didn’t possess – so I rushed out at lunch time, changed into civilian clothes and obtained a photograph at a photo-booth. At this time, as I was serving in the RN, I used a penname, Platen Syder. However, the write-up blew my cover with ease – and interestingly a couple of staff at HMS Centurion, where I was working, recognised me and commented favourably about the story.
Of course times have changed and it is doubtless frowned upon to deface a living tree. And I note that Tom stayed at home for some reason while he let his wife struggle with the shopping; how ungallant of him! The identity of the old lady is a contrivance, necessary for the length of story, I suppose. It is unashamedly sentimental; still, there’s nothing wrong with that – there’s plenty of cynicism in the world to compensate. I’m still fond of the story, anyway, even after all these years.
If you’d like to see how my writing has developed in the intervening years, please consider my short story collection, Spanish Eye, published by Crooked Cat (2013), which features 22 cases from Leon Cazador, private eye, ‘in his own words’. He is also featured in the story ‘Processionary Penitents’ in the Crooked Cat Collection of twenty tales, Crooked Cats’ Tales.
Spanish Eye, released by Crooked Cat Publishing is available as a paperback and as an e-book.
Or you could try my co-authored fantasy novel Wings of the Overlord (by Morton Faulkner) currently available in hardback (5 good glowing reviews):
Floreskand, where myth, mystery and magic reign. The sky above the city of Lornwater darkens as thousands of red tellars, the magnificent birds of the Overlord, wing their way towards dark Arisa. Inexplicably drawn to discover why, the innman Ulran sets out on a quest. Although he prefers to travel alone, he accedes to being accompanied by the ascetic Cobrora Fhord, who seems to harbour a secret or two. Before long, they realise that it's a race against time: they must get to Arisa within seventy days and unlock the secret of the scheduled magical rites. On their way, they stay at the ghostly inn on the shores of dreaded Lake and meet up with the mighty warrior Courdour Alomar. Alomar has his own reasons for going to Arisa and thus is forged an unlikely alliance. Gradually, the trio learn more about each other -- whether it's the strange link Ulran has with the red tellar Scalrin, the lost love of Alomar, or the superstitious heart of Cobrora. Plagued by assassins, forces of nature and magic, the ill-matched threesome must follow their fate across the plains of Floreskand, combat the Baronculer hordes, scale the snow-clad Sonalume Mountains and penetrate the dark heart of Arisa. Only here will they uncover the truth. Here too they will find pain and death in their struggle against the evil Yip-nef Dom.