The Memory Tree - Extracts
Note: THE MEMORY TREE was previously published in 2016 as THE TRYSTING TREE.
THE BEECH WOOD
She has forgotten what she saw long ago, what she found. Daily she walks in the wood, a woman now, who walked beneath our boughs as a child. Alone then, alone now.
The tree still stands, one of our number, where the child swung back and forth, laughing, clutching the thick ropes the man had slung over one of its branches. Now the woman gazes up at the leafy canopy and shivers.
The swing is gone, taken down long ago, but the rope left scars. She doesn't see them, doesn't remember. But she's beginning to wonder if she has forgotten. And what she has forgotten.
There is a hole at the heart of the tree, a dark place that holds secrets. The woman looks up at the hiding place the child could never reach and she wonders.
She is scarred like the tree, with a secret hidden in her heart. Something dark. Forgotten. Unreachable.
French seed packets, c.1920
When the old beech tree came down, it was as if someone had died. Someone who'd been around for ever, who'd seemed immortal, like an elder statesman or the Queen.
I actually cried. I pretended it was fear. The tree had missed the studio by inches and we could have been crushed, pinned to the ground like dead butterflies, transfixed by its branches. I allowed my mother to believe it was shock that made me weep, but it was grief. I'd lost a childhood friend. A link with my father.
When I'd calmed down, I photographed the tree, recording carefully the two centuries of graffiti incised on its smooth, grey bark. Don't ask me why. It seemed important at the time. When the tree surgeons came, I couldn't bear to watch, so I hid indoors, but I still had to listen to the cruel whine of the chainsaws.
It was distressing because I knew the tree wasn't actually dead. It was weak and very old, but not dead. Even though it had succumbed to the storm, it might have continued to live, horizontally, maintaining a tenuous hold on life through its massive root system, part of which still clung to the damp earth. They were killing a live thing with many other living things growing in it and on it. It was a massacre.
The beech just missed the studio, but flattened the shed and an outhouse. Even if we'd removed all its branches, the trunk, five metres in circumference, would have filled the garden, like a bus. It had to go, so I let them carve it up and cart it away. It took days.
On the second day, one of the men knocked on the back door and handed me what looked like a rusty biscuit tin. 'We found this in a hole in the tree. Thought you might like to see if there's anything valuable inside. Maybe the lost family jewels, eh?' he said with a smile before going back to his noisy work.
I had to take a chisel to the lid. Inside I found something wrapped in oil cloth. I hesitated before touching it, wondering what on earth the cloth might contain. There was no unpleasant smell, so I concluded the contents were inorganic or totally decayed. Cautious still, I donned rubber gloves and picked up the bundle. Despite its size, it weighed very little. I unwrapped the cloth to find it was protecting seed packets, beautiful, antique seed packets, maybe a hundred years old. The delicate flower paintings were the sort of thing you'd frame nowadays and hang on a wall. But these were originals, glued by hand.
I wondered why anyone would go to so much trouble to preserve seeds. They weren't rare varieties, just humble cottage garden flowers: hollyhocks, lupins, nasturtiums, nothing special. I picked up a packet of nasturtium seeds, turned it over and read the back, wondering if the seeds would still be viable. As I held the packet between my gloved fingers, I realised it was empty. Nasturtium seeds are the size of petit pois. So are lupin seeds. I took off my gloves and felt the packets, then shook them vigorously, close to my ear. Every single packet - and there must have been twenty - appeared to be empty. Sealed, but empty.
I put the packets back in the tin and filled the kettle, averting my eyes from the dismemberment outside. As the water came to the boil, I was already preoccupied with the question that would come to haunt me in the coming weeks. Why would anyone hide empty seed packets in a hollow tree?
But the story doesn't start there. I need to go back. Back to a time when the beech tree still stood, when I didn't know the truth about my family and Connor didn't know the truth about his. Right back to a time when the twentieth century was young and the beech still kept its secrets.
Extract from Hester Mordaunt's diary
Strawberry Thief, a fabric designed by William
Morris and registered in 1883.
June 5th, 1914
Walter has proposed.
Mother is thrilled. Father seems very pleased too. I was too astonished to respond when Walter finally made his intentions clear. Eventually I said I needed time to consider. Mother says that was quite proper, but I should accept soon if we are to organise a wedding before Christmas. There is talk of war, though Father says nothing will come of it, it is just the Kaiser sabre-rattling.
I suppose I should record the details of this momentous event! Walter proposed in the rose garden. No doubt he thought that would be romantic. He was not to know roses irritate me rather. They are very beautiful, but they do not last. Perhaps that is why they are so admired. They enjoy a short season, like asparagus. But you can at least eat asparagus.
Sitting in the rose garden, I felt as if I were at a summer ball, surrounded by young ladies got up in yards of pale silk and satin, the air heavy with their suffocating scent. I had far rather sit in the kitchen garden than the rose garden. How comical, if Walter had proposed in the kitchen garden! Yet how much more appropriate, since the purpose of marriage is to be fruitful and multiply.
I suppose if I marry, Mother will have to tell me what multiplying entails. I once asked Arthur and Eddie, but they refused to tell me. They smirked and said I should find out soon enough. Then Arthur winked at Eddy, which was perfectly horrid of him. I have no desire to be fruitful if it means inflicting brothers on a daughter of mine.
When I was sitting in the rose garden with Walter I noticed something interesting. The bees prefer single roses. The double blooms, though much showier, seem to hold little attraction for them. I sat observing this phenomenon for some minutes and confess I might not have taken in all that Walter had to say about the happy future he intends to offer me.
I wonder why bees prefer single blooms? My brothers would not know. All they have retained of their excellent and largely wasted education is the rules of various sports.
I should have liked to be a scientist. A botanist, perhaps. Or a plant collector who travelled to China, like Mr E H Wilson, though I should prefer not to have my leg crushed in an avalanche of boulders and have to set it using a camera tripod for a splint. If I could not be a botanist or an explorer, I think I should have liked to be a gardener.
When I mentioned this to Mother, she laughed. Sadly, I am a source of constant and unintentional amusement to my family. Mother explained that ladies paint flowers and wear them, they do not grow them.
The rules of life seem to me as unfathomable as the rules of cricket, yet I feel sure the bees know what they are doing. There has to be a reason why they go only to the single flowers, why they are never distracted by the opulence of Souvenir de la Malmaison.
I wish now that I had paid more attention to Walter when he was proposing. Perhaps I might feel more enthusiastic about marriage if I had. The truth is, I have never really thought about it much, but I know I should. Mother says time is running out.
I am twenty-two.