Feedback as ever appreciated. Here goes:
By Neil Beynon
The tree still stands. That’s something. That’s what she tries to tell herself as a cold breeze sends her hands to her elbows in search of warmth. Her bag lies discarded by her side, a faded red cross hanging on by one corner’s stitching, an airplane tag kept from drowning in creases by its string mooring; tethered to the handle as the wind threatens to drag it away in a merry dance across the sky.
She can see the sky is a brilliant azure, hardly a cloud in sight save for the odd puff of white. Like gunfire. And she thinks to herself: it should be grey.
Her gaze sweeps the newly laid car park. Looking at where once was soft earth, in which trees had once dragged their feet in a slow intricate dance that only the stars ever really saw and where, as a girl, she’d sneak down to watch the owls at night.
Save for one. Save for the tree that still stands. Her special place. His special place. Their special place. She steps forward to the small wooden barrier that encircles the tree. She doesn’t run her hands over the wooden cage they’ve built for the tree – it would leave splinters – but her hand hovers above it as she walks around the futile architecture. As if trying to sense if it has any power.
The plaque is brass. Like the car park it has not been there long. Her fingers explore the words etched on it, examine the smoothed off edges where it meets the wood. And her lips mouth the words.
The smell of the place is different. Gone are the smell of wood and mud, vanished is the tang of grass permeated with wildflowers and there are no clothes drying in the wind. Adding their soapy scent to it all. Now all she can smell is dust and tar, smells that catch in the back of her throat like two dirty fingers.
She steps over the barrier and up to the tree. It still stands but the trunk looks paler than she remembers, older than she recalls – but then they were both that – and as if something vital has been drained from it. If she didn’t know better she’d have said it had died, that they’d merely preserved the carcass – maybe that was true but the tree wasn’t actually dead. It had bloomed only a few months ago according to her sister.
She kneels at the base of the tree. Searching for the opening. It isn’t there. Just a small hollow that could never have been what she remembered and yet there it is. Perhaps it closed up unable to bear what had happened. Perhaps her memory is faulty? Although she’s spent so much time in her own skull lately it’s all fading, merging with others miasmic musings of what once was.
She isn’t sure of anything. Hasn’t been since Korea. And she can’t ask him anymore.
She steps back, looking up at the branches. Big huge knots of wood stretching into the blue but containing nothing more than decaying leaves. No familiar sights, no familiar faces – lined with age but recognisable – gazing down at her. And far above, the tree that once reached the clouds now falls short, as if it is slowly shrinking back to seed.
There is a flapping from a tree branch so high she nearly misses the owl, sitting there in daylight beyond all reason but gazing down at her all the same. She starts. It can’t be. She begins to speak and then catches herself. Of course it isn’t. Too young, feathers the wrong colours…besides – why would he be there when the others…
It’s horrible. Like she’s back in that fetid tent again, with the flies and the laid out meat awaiting identification; as if, once more, she’s rolling back the blanket from what’s left of him. That the tree – like him – is both there and not there. Something discarded, forgotten and forlorn. She shouldn’t have come.
She doesn’t know why she did. When her plane landed it seemed the most important thing in the world, more important than resting, or seeing her sister or pretty much anything normal.
Perhaps she had hoped it would still be as it was. But no. She’d known about the car park. Yet it’d still felt like her lungs had no air when her eyes fell on it for the first time. Had still felt a little part of her die when she realised she could see the uppermost spire of the tree and that there was no escape. No remedy.
Just like in the tent.
She steps back over the barrier. Her hand lingering on the brass plaque, tracing the J, caressing the P and lingering on the H. No one called him Joseph. At least they got the rank right.
“Bessie!” calls a voice.
Bessie turns, her uniform making it difficult. Her sister is waving at her from across the road. She raises a hand in return before turning to pick up her bag. Gives the tree a fleeting look back before walking away.
And the sky should have been grey but isn’t.