The Barbary Tree
The sign warned Tigs that the next exit from the Motorway would take her to Compton. She moved the car smoothly from a sleek fast-moving stream of saloon cars into a pungent, lumbering lane of lorries. Immediately intimidating heights crowded in on her, blocking her view and filling the little car with fumes that stung her eyes and brought tears once more to the surface.
Her reason for travelling to Compton was one of panic rather than good sense. She didn’t quite know why she was doing it. She just knew she had to. The few tears that had escaped sat damp and ineffectual on her cheek. She wiped them away and, gripping the steering-wheel with determination, turned off the Motorway into a leafy Hampshire lane that led through sleepy market towns into deep country.
Soon she would see her destination; a small village tucked between Pennal hill and Salen Wood, with its single street and small lanes daudling into infinity. One more corner. There was the signpost. She changed gear and gently eased around the bend.
It wasn’t there.
She slowed to a crawl – unbelieving. The village just didn’t exist. A building on the left looked as though it might have been the church – but how changed.. A completely new ‘front’ told her it was Grimshaw’s Art Gallery. The kissing Gate was there and sentinal Yews overlooked the ancient graves as menacingly as ever. It was a relief to see the same old grave-stones that she had so often visited as a child, when she would place wild flowers on the older ones so that they shouldn’t feel forgotten.. But now, all around those ancient stones, in a riot of colour, grew busy lizzies, geraniums and tangles of petunias. Roses climbed the forbidding walls and nudged the stain-glass windows in cheery competition.
Would Mary Blezzard – 1709 to 1791 – spinster of this parish – be happy with these changes? Perhaps Isobel Porter would like it better. She had died of diptheria at the age of ten, and lay under the heavy stone wings of an angel still anchored to a chipped marble slab. Tigs used to grieve for Isobel, convinced that her restless spirit still suffered under all that gloomy weight..
She changed gear and moved slowly on. Aunt Mary’s Wool Shop had gone. The Butcher, the Shoe Shop, the School with its swings and tiny garden, where, long ago, she had grown mustard and cress and radishes. Even the lanes had disappeared, including the solomn row of Almshouses, with the Latin inscription above the doors. After the war six families had still lived there, with pretty gardens and a communal lawn running down to the road. In their place stood a characterless row of shops. A ‘Spar’, a ‘House Agent’, a drab Dress Agency, a hairdresser called ‘Curls’ and a Newsagent. They had vandal-proof shutters and the entire edifice was fronted by a rubbish strewn strip of concrete for parking purposes..
The old red Telephone Box still existed, and she could see the road turning sharp right just beyond it. She turned the wheel apprehensively. Surely Salen Wood couldn’t vanish. They couldn’t remove that, but to her horror the leafy lane turned into row upon row of identical houses. Row upon row of dwarf cherry, Japanese Maple, privet and rhodedendron. Little ponds were guarded by stone herons and coloured gnomes. Back garden carousels spun washing in the afternoon breeze.
There was no wild wood. No giant Centurians towering over primrose and bluebell. No dragon-flys or may-bugs. No pond, no leaves, no birds, no moss. The houses with their chequer board gardens ended in a dusty swathe of mangled roots straggling out of rubble-filled crevasses, vying for light with old gym-shoes, plastic bottles and derelict wheel-barrows. A tepid wind fanned the wasted earth onto the roadway – blowing Salen Wood away for ever.
Tigs stopped the car and leant wearily on the steering wheel. She was suddenly so tired. As her eyes closed a whirl of mixed dreams spiralled her back into childhood, and the memories that meant so much.
She stood once more in the cosy little sitting room. Her Mother, pools of sadness in her warm brown eyes – but so beautiful. And Aunt Maud. Sallow, with deep lines of discontent pulling her mouth into ugly contortions. Hard and unforgiving. She could hear her Mother say, as she so often did –
“Poor Maud. She has such a load to bear. She must live with us until she can cope again.”
Cope with what? Tigs had wondered. ‘Coping’ didn’t seem to be a thing Maud wanted to do. Showing how heavy her ‘load’ was seemed to suit her much better. Especially as she got so much practice.
With insight beyond her years Tigs had sensed that Maud’s pleasure in life came from martyrdom. What her ten years had not allowed her to see was Maud’s jealousy. Tigs, with her youthful bloom and happy care-free ways presented Maud with an image she couldn’t digest. Feeling un-loved by the family as a whole the plain, lonely Maud, cheated in her view by life, and taken advantage of by the people in it, could be irritated by so many things, such as laughter, and little girls more loved than she felt she had been.
One remembered day her dislike had reached new heights and she had raged at the child with a fury that had terrified Tigs. Even her Mother, usually so calm, had looked anxious.
“She had no right entering my room. No right. She was spying. Am I to have no privacy?”
“I was only looking at the bird’s nest in the Wisteria.”
“How dare you lie to me, and your dear Mother. How dare you..”
Little globs of spittal flew from her over-crowded teeth. She shook with rage.
“Mum – I’m not lying.”
“You are. My things have been moved. I can tell.”
Tigs looked at her Mother imploringly – willing her to take her side. But it was not to be.
“I hate to believe this of you Theresa. Snooping isn’t nice. If you want to go into poor Maud’s room you must ask her first. Now say you are sorry, and promise never to do it again.”
“I didn’t snoop. I didn’t. I hate her room. It smells of T.C.P. and she never opens the window. Its horrid, and I won’t say sorry because I’m not.”
With that she had burst into tears, and rushed as fast as she could out of the room, the house, the garden and down the road into the wood at the end of the field.
She hated upsetting her Mother. Tigs knew she was unhappy about something, though she never knew quite what. She had heard remarks like “…and I don’t think she ever saw him again. Such a wonderful artist.” and “…of-course she was widowed so long, so you can’t blame her.” and one day Aunt Maud had said to Mother. “….and I hope you were ashamed of yourself.” and flounced out of the room leaving her Mother pale and shaking.
It baffled Tigs. She had never known her Father. Mother had said he was a soldier. There was no mention of him being an artist. There were no pictures on the walls he could have painted. Nothing. Just orchestrated silence. Especially since Maud had come to stay. Just a few visits at first. Then a week or two. Then one whole winter when her chest was bad and she had needed care. Then she was there all the time. She had ‘moved in’ “To help your poor Mother.”
Tigs, still sobbing, ran through the field and into the veridian vaults of the deep wood. She loved the massive trees and in her imagination Salen Wood was full of wonder and enchantment. The oak canopy at its centre creating caverns of lichen and low hanging branches, leafy tendrils that excluded all but rash, unruly shafts of light and whirling meridians of energetic insects… Beneath the flashes of leafy light were opalescent pools of aconite, violet and primrose, cushioned in a haven of dark, damp moss nestling in the tumbled roots of the large oaks.
The largest oak, with the mossiest nests in its massive roots was her favorite,, Breezes playing through its branches whispered down to her. To Tigs it was a living, breathing thing. She called it her Barbary Tree – for no reason other than the fact that it seemed a most excellent and exciting name. The tree talked to her and she talked to the tree. Injustice is a state no young person can accommodate. It is a sensation a child cannot fight. Tigs’ tears of helpless rage flowed noisily, punctuated by her fists hitting the bark-ridged pillows beneath her and her sobs of -
“I hate her. I won’t say ‘sorry’. I’m not sorry. I won’t say it!”
“Oh dear – oh dear! That doesn’t sound as though its going to solve any problems.”
Tigs stopped in mid-hiccough and raised her head.
“I said – that won’t solve any problems.
Tigs peered around the wooded grove, but could see no-one.
“Who are you?”
“Who were you speaking to?”
“My tree – my Barbary Tree.” It suddenly sounded silly.
“Exactly” came the unexpected reply. “I do tend to answer when I’m spoken to.”
She heard a chuckle and sat up, ignominiously wiping her dripping nose on her sleeve.
“You come here often.” It was hard to say if it was a statement or a query. It sounded like both.
“You know I do.”
“Yes, of-course I do. I think you’d better tell me what the trouble is.”
The saga came out in angry bursts.
“Would you like my advice? It might not please you.”
Tigs nodded. “Yes please.” Her voice was hardly audible, her energies washed away in her tears of rage.
“Go home. Give Mummy a big kiss and say ‘sorry’ – then go and do the same thing to Aunt Maud. Sbhe may be unhappy too. Anger makes people unhappy. And perhaps she has never seen a bird’s nest, and you could have the pleasure of showing her one. Can you draw? You could draw a picture of it. You’ll feel so much better if you do. I know so.
“I don’t want to.”
“I know you don’t. But you will – won’t you. Now, before it gets dark.
She ran her hand over the rumpled bark and sighed.
“Alright. I will. But I don’t want to.”
She slowly got up and brushed off the cobwebs and leaves.
“Your name is Theresa I think.”
“Yes. How do you know?”
She heard a soft laugh.
“Good-night Theresa. Perhaps we’ll meet again.”
“Oh please. I love you so much.”
There was a slight pause, and in a voice that had a slightly different note in it she was answered –
“And I love you too. You’ll never know how much.”
As she ran into the waning sunlight she didn’t hear the sad and lonely sigh that came from her towering tree.
Compton was her home for many more years. Her Mother eventually lost the sadness in her eyes, though she never married again and whatever secret she had stayed secret, from Tigs anyway, who, for some reason, thought better than to ask. She would never know now, her Mother had died in her sleep ten years ago. Tigs became an accomplished artist and lived in London before moving to New York. She had flown over from that bustling city three days ago, with her life in a state of emotional confusion.
One bright star had rocketed into her well-ordered life. Now, without warning, at forty-five, her business, her foundations, even her flat and her circle of friends, were all at risk – if she followed her bright star into his firmament; and he wanted her to. She had thought that real love had passed her by, and was running her life accordingly. The odd flirtation had kept her amused and comfortable in her single state. Now a complete commitment was more than a possibility, and she didn’t know if she had the strength to grasp it.
One morning she sat up in bed with an undeniable urge to return to Compton and rest her puzzled head on the bark of a vast tree. It had seemed so real to her that unforgettable childhood day. One night, years later, in front of a roaring fire and armed with a mug of late evening cocoa, she had told her Mother all about her strange encounter.
“That must have been when you were about ten.” Her Mother mused. Her eyes went into a different time, and the slow smile on her face took her somewhere else altogether.
Two heavy lorries rumbled by and rocked Tigs from her reverie. They say it doesn’t pay to look back. What are childhood memories after all. What indeed.. When you think of them you live them and time and age mean nothing at all. She’d have loved to have felt the comfort and strength of that old tree again. Had she dreamt its words? Perhaps she could dream tham once again.. What would it say? Would it tell her what she wanted to hear? What did she want to hear? It was up to her, not a tree.
She put the little car into gear, and drove, with an expression of thoughtful determination, back into town; passing the vanished village, accelerating past Grimshaw’s Art Gallery, finally turning the corner into the world at large.
As an elderly gentleman in baggy corderoy, paint splatterd trousers stands, looking out onto the world, he is mildly aware of a little car changing gear at the corner, then hurrying on its way. Behind him in what was once the village church his pictures hang. His paintings demand a high price. he is an artist of note. Inside the cool, vaulted building are paintings of gnarled oaks, funghi, dragon-flies and wild flowers. Great canvases depict deep woodland with sunlight splashing through dense foliage.
One, unexpectedly, contains the shadowy from of a pretty child; her long fair hair falling like a waterfall across her pale, .still face. The sign underneath reads “Theresa and her Barbary Tree. 1960. Not for Sale.”
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