The Walnut Trees
THE WALNUT TREES
“Hurry up - love of my life!”
“Coming!” With that well known feeling of last-minute panic I chased back into the kitchen to convince myself that all was in order. Gas off - door locked - windows shut - radio off. All in order! With a great sigh of relief I eased myself, plus my bundles, out of the front door and down the path towards the already heavy-laden car.
Phil tossed my coats and bags unceremoniously into the back seat for Davie to sort out, and before I could catch my breath we were off. Off to St Davids.
As a child I had gone there with my parents and experienced the magic of this Cathedral city; promising myself that one day I would return, to see those dramatic battlements, scene of so much history told with such conviction throughout the ages. The ancient bricks and stones are masterpieces of beauty; greens, greys, mauves and pinks, that whisper such secrets in their shadows. Secrets thought to have vanished forever into the distant past, yet somehow never seeming so far away. In my memory I was seeing again the Cathedral, so protective over the little hamlet of St Davids. When we had arrived all those years ago we could hear the choir singing.. Serene Welsh voices pouring their music through the brilliance of the stained-glass windows into the cold night air. Britain’s smallest city listened - smoke spiralling from peaceful chimneys, drifting through evensong. I never forgot it, and now, thirty years later I was to return, with Davie and Phil.
Davie was seventeen, and Phil and I knew it would be the last holiday he would be spending with us. At seventeen youth has spreading wings that must be tested - and holidays with parents do not figure in that scenario.
As the day progressed we drove across the Severn Bridge in the late summer sunshine. We passed Cardiff and sped into the countryside – Davie, in the back seat, concentrating on the map. Our plan was to have a week in Solva, and a week in St Davids. As it was October people would be scarce so we hadn’t booked in anywhere. It added to the fun of the holiday not to know exactly where we would be staying.
There were eerie mists rising from the valleys, the green of the mountain ash paling to soft gamboge; the bracken fronds now tipped with rust. The first of the night-chills seemed just around the corner.
There was a great rustling of paper from the back seat.
“We need a new map Dad.” Complained Davie, tussling with a lap full of disintegrating sections. “This is so old all the round-abouts have changed, and it hasn’t got any motor-ways. Sorry – but I think we should have taken that last turning on the left!”
We went a little further, managed to back into a muddy field and retraced our way to the turning – a winding road that said it went to Treffgarne Cross.
It was a long time before we came to the next sign, drooping wearily over a heavy beech hedge at an indecisive angle, and telling us nothing on the map so we continued on to Llandloy. Fifteen minutes later we saw a sign to Penpark, and we knew that was too far north and quite wrong. At the first opportunity we took an un-marked lane south, hoping at least to be heading in the right direction.
Gradually the lanes were becoming smaller, the houses fewer and the hedges, wilder, leaning over the car more purposefully, spikey fingers scratching at the paint, driving us into pot-holes. Phil eased the car onto a grass verge facing a five-bar gate.
“Come on Son – out with the map! Change places with your Mother and we’ll try to find a way out of here.!
I climbed out of the front seat and surveyed the country-side. I could hear the buzz of lazy insects, the distant sounds of cattle and sheep, and a singing breeze playing in the branches of the hedging, rustling leaves and whistling through the massive trees that stood in a circle in the centre of the field. There were still larks high in the heavens. Over the dip at the far end of the field I glimpsed a spiral of smoke and a patch of roof. I felt happy.
Phil and Davie were bending over the map in deep conversation.
“I feel like stretching my legs, so I’ll pop over to that farm-house and get a bit of first-hand advice. Back in about twenty minutes.” A quick wave and I was away, glad of the chance to ease a few cramped muscles, and visit those great trees in their intriguing circle. I climbed the gate and ran to the grassy rise then climbed slowly to enter the group of magnificent walnuts, rare these days. Seven statuesque trunks rose to the heavens, their branches intertwined to form a thick canopy overhead, light barely managing to get through. The ground beneath them was soft, Carpeted with the falling leaves of generations. Crinkled walnut shells, escaped from their smooth overcoats, lay in lazy drifts; new green nuts lolling on the ground – waiting to be picked and pickled by some industrious farmer’s wife. Down the hill on the other side of the ring of trees a ramshackle gate opened onto a path leading to a farm-house. The area seemed strangely quiet for a farm. I could neither see nor hear any animals.
Herbs filled terra-cotta tubs beside the door, bushes of rosemary and bay, beds of sage, thyme and hyssop ran along the walls. On a broad stone step an imperious Burmese cat with golden eyes, wearing a scarlet collar stared at me bleakly as I approached.
“May I help you?”
The voice was soft but I nearly jumped out of my skin. It came from behind me. I swung around to find myself looking into the eyes of a tall, ageless woman dressed in ankle-skimming black; silver hair flowing down her back – straight and shining.
“Oh! You gave me a fright!” I blurted – laughing.
She didn’t smile, just lifted her eye-brows and silently queried my presence. I explained our predicament. She nodded and stepped forward to open the door to her home.
I was ushered into a stone-flagged kitchen from another age. The stove was wood-burning, the bowls brown crocks. The sink deep porceline bordered with heavy wooden draining boards. The pans were large, deep and iron. The woman opened a drawer in the scrubbed oak table and took out paper and pencil. In a few moments she gave me a neatly drawn map with names and arrows. I thanked her and started back to the car. The path returned me to the falling gate and into the field. Once more I walked through the walnut trees and then on to the five-bar gate. I climbed over and stood stock-still in amazement. Our car had gone.I was surprised, but came to the conclusion that Phil and Davie had probably decided to go on a little search of their own. It was nearly five by now. Shivering slightly in the sinking sunlight I strolled back to the circle of trees to await their return.
No grass grew under that heavy cardigan of summer leaves. It was darker than before and now the earth seemed raked into strange patterns. On closer inspection the trees had unfamiliar letters carved into the bark; six or seven feet above the ground I could see a wooden stave had been driven into each trunk and each stave had leather tassels hanging from it, and the skulls of small birds. These sentinels of beauty suddenly acquired a chilling quality. The day was now cold, unfriendly. Rustling leaves became angry leaves. The circle was closing in on me. The trees were leaning with menace. The sky was steel grey.
In panic I ran to the five-bar gate. To Phil, Davie and the car. There was no-one there. Nothing at all. Not even a tyre-mark in the soft earth.
Giving the walnut trees a wide berth I ran back to the house. There was a pale light in the kitchen window. As I reached thye door it opened and the same lady stood quietly looking at me. She appeared so calm and elegant that I felt ashamed of my own pani9s and tried to tell her what had happened in a cool, adult way. I couldn’t keep my voice steady. She just nodded, never changing her expression.
“Yes. I see you have a problem. Please come in. I am here with my daughter.” Then I noticed the beautiful girl standing in the shadows. She was dressed in scarlet. She walked towards me, silky, eyes demurely down, smiling a strangely triumphant smile. When she was close to me she lifted her head and looked straight at me. I felt a great fear as I forced myself to meet those golden eyes. From their depths my husband and my son looked back at me. They were laughing. Then the world went black.
When I regained consciousness the muddy ground felt hard and cold through my damp clothing. I was shivering uncontrollably. Opening my eyes I found I was beside the five-bar gate. It was morning and a worried post-man was propping his bike against the hedge. He ran towards me and wrapped me in his water-proof cape. As I looked around I could see there was no farm and still – no car. No tyre marks. The walnut trees rustled in cheerful innocence. The postman rode off to get a neighbour and soon I was warm and being cared for by a kindly farmer. It seemed there had never been a farm over the hill. They knew nothing of staves, skulls and tassels.
I tried to tell them about Phil, Davie and the car, but my tears made explanation hard. I could sense their disbelief. The Doctor was kind – but obviously didn’t believe me. They all told me I had had a bad dream.
I haven’t been very well since. Last week my brother came to see me. He brought me a present to cheer me up. ‘A little company for you’ he said. He opened a wicker basket and lifted out a Burmese cat with luminous golden eyes.
“”She’s a champion – so she’s got a very fancy name. She’s called Nemesis of Treffgarne” said my brother as he gently adjusted her scarlet collar.
The little Burmese stretched her claws and raised her eyes to mine. They were both still there. But not laughing now. Just staring. I did all I could to keep Nemesis of Treffgarne alive and well.
Last week my brother and I drove to the five-bar gate. I go every so often – just to see it. With a little hope in my heart. This time I took the little Burmese with me. As soon as the car stopped she jumped out of my arms and darted towards the trees. When I reached her she arched her back and spat at me. I tried to pick her up but she was quicker than I was and shot out of the trees to where the farm had been. I followed her but in vain, she had vanished. I walked slowly back into the circle of trees. The winter wind seemed to laugh as it slapped the bare branches. Then I saw them. Two women- one in black with silver hair, the other -–small and dressed in scarlet. I ran towards them – but as soon as I moved – they vanished. All around me were staves in the bark, with leather tassels and birds skulls. All except one. On that stave dangled a slim scarlet collar.
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