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Getting away from it all

Bill Hodson

Awake for almost two hours now and still no sign of light outside. In his old house there would have been the sherbet glow of the street lamp and the sound of the odd car going by to remind him that life was stirring, a new day grumbling its way into existence. The nocturnal shrieks and squawks of the country just unsettled him.

Pointless to get up in the dark. Bad habit as well. End up dozing off in the afternoon, snoring in the chair, dribble down his chin. Need to establish a regular pattern.

Too many changes all at once. Too much to think about. His mind was racing now and Philip’s words of warning kept coming back to him.

‘It doesn’t make any sense to up sticks at a time like this, Colin. You need to take stock. Let it all sink in.’

Retired for five years now but his brother couldn’t stop acting the part of the family G.P. Doctor knows best. Doing the opposite of what Philip advised was one of the few pleasures left to Colin – but that didn’t mean he’d done the right thing in buying this place.

Need to relax, he told himself, but he could feel the panic setting in. Another lost night’s sleep, another day of walking through treacle. It wasn’t just the move. He hadn’t got used to sleeping on his own and couldn’t help hugging one side of the bed, half expecting to feel Liz turn over and sigh in her sleep releasing a wave of heat to warm his back. He’d never been able to sleep properly without her, even if she was just spending a night or two at her mother’s. Now it would always be like this.

And then there was that bloody oak tree, raking its branches against his window, cracking its knuckles, tearing at the fabric of his house, waking him up and stopping him sleeping. Planted too close to the building, it cast a gloom over the whole back garden, taking away what little light he had. If only he hadn’t been in such of a hurry to buy somewhere. No wonder the price was so reasonable.

It’s got to go, he thought. Get on to that tomorrow. Hannah was due to come up and see him in a couple of weeks. Perhaps he could get it cut down by then. That would show her he was on top of things, that he was making a go of it, planning for the future.

She’d been no more keen than Philip about his decision to move house.

‘It’s too soon Dad. Just give yourself some time and if you still feel the same way in six months then – fine.’

He didn’t know how to respond, make her understand how he felt. When she was little they’d chatter away to each other but it was different now. Anyway, she had her own life to lead.

He and Liz had often talked about moving. They met through the Ramblers Association and Colin had always wanted to move to the Lake District when he retired. He had so many happy memories of holidays with Liz and then with Hannah in tow, tramping through the rain, looking forward to tea and cakes when they got back in, doing jigsaws in the evening. Even if he couldn’t get those times back maybe he could get that feeling again.

When he first mentioned it to Liz she hadn’t been convinced about moving to the country.

‘It’s not the same as going for a weekend, you know. When you’re on holiday it’s like playing house but it’s another thing altogether when you live there all the time’

Now he could see what Liz was getting at. You had to get on with everyone in a village or you might end up with no-one to talk to. That was going to be tricky judging by some of the people he’d met in the pub the other day.

But he couldn’t explain all this to Hannah. What would she say if he told her that even as he sat in the side ward, waiting for Liz to die, he was thinking about putting the house up for sale, certain that he couldn’t stay on there?

When he got to the hospital that night he couldn’t get near Liz. She was lost in a mesh of wires, tubes and drips. All he wanted to do was to hold her; to put his face close to hers and speak softly in her ear. Just so she would know he was there. But he couldn’t get near for all the clutter of equipment so had to crane forward and hold his head over hers as best he could, all hope of intimacy lost, competing against the beep of the machines and the clatter of trolleys.

After a while his back was killing him so he arched upwards and rubbed the base of his spine.

‘Are you alright?’

So soft and indistinct he could barely make out Liz’s words. Asking about him. Nothing about what she was going through, her own pain. Her last words as it turned out.

Colin wanted someone to come and tell him how she was and to tend to her. He found himself getting more and more wound up but after about half an hour one of the nurses came to him.

‘We can take all this away if you want. Move your wife to a side room where you can be more peaceful.’

He knew what that meant. Liz was seemingly unconscious now, her head turned from him and her eyes closed. He’d nodded and they started taking out the tubes.

Liz had moved a little in the bed at first, shifting her position slightly as if trying to get comfortable. For a while Colin leaned in close to her cheek, hoping she would flicker back into consciousness, that there would be a last chance to say goodbye. After an hour or so his back started to play up again and he’d had to sit down in the chair. By then he’d realised that the twitching was involuntary; just nerve endings doing their job without being asked.

Night gave way to a watery morning and the thin light leaking slowly into the room made Liz’s face seem even more ashen, as if she was crumbling away before his eyes. At first her breathing was shallow though regular but then became more erratic and uneven. As the morning came on she started to miss a breath and then be still for long periods. This must be the end he thought leaning forward again but, without any warning, her chest heaved and she gulped in air as if coming up from deep water.

This happened several times but at last she lay motionless and silent. Colin went to fetch a nurse who held Liz’s wrist. And then the awful groan as her lungs cried out for one more breath.

‘Not yet. It’s often like this.’

The next time he waited a full five minutes, willing the hands on his watch to move round more quickly and bring this to an end. This time it was final.

They asked him to leave the room and when he came back they’d propped her up on the pillow and combed her hair. She didn’t look like Liz any more. There was no sign of her true self, the woman he loved. He knew he ought to kiss her for the last time but somehow it felt indecent to touch her lips and so he ended up giving her a peck on the cheek, as if she were just popping down to the shops.

He’d heard people speak of ’beautiful’ deaths, of the privilege of being present when life ends and the spirit leaves. He had felt nothing of that. Just agony. Emptiness.

He put the house up for sale the day after the funeral – much to Philip’s disgust – and within 3 months he’d moved out to this stone cottage just north of Buttermere.

Two weeks into his new life and he was yet to have a decent night’s sleep. He must have dozed off at some point though because it was past nine o’clock when he woke up with cramp pains in his leg. The muscles in his calf were knotted tight, sending sharp spasms like knives digging into his flesh, but he couldn’t bend over properly to grab his leg. Too bloody fat.

‘Liz – for God’s sake – rub my leg will you?’

It just came out. When he was in trouble his first thought had always been to turn to her.

He managed to roll sideways and get his legs over the edge of the bed and then he was able to sit up and reach down to rub his calf. Bent double, the pain gradually easing, he began to sob, his nose oozing and tears dropping onto his bare thighs.

At breakfast, sipping his tea and lingering over some cold toast, he stared out of the kitchen window. Not that he could see much. The trunk of the oak tree was only a couple of yards from his back door and it obscured the rest of the garden. Even in winter, with just its scabby, mildewed branches as a canopy it seemed to suck all the daylight out of the air and leave a lifeless patch of ground beneath, where even the grass couldn’t grow.

At least there was something he could do about that.

He found several entries in the Yellow Pages and picked out Robert Lewis. Dependable sort of name and he described himself as a tree surgeon. That’s what’s needed – cut it out and destroy it before it kills everything else.

It was a couple of days before he came.

‘Call me Bob.’

He certainly looked the part. Huge chest, just a sweater on, although there was still snow on the ground, and a fine array of saws and bulky machinery lying in the back of his truck, just waiting to be brought into play.

Bob walked around the trunk and then carefully examined the line of the roots flowing towards the house. Walking backwards into the garden he gazed upwards to get the full sense of the tree. To Colin’s dismay he seemed to be nodding approval.

‘Fine specimen that. You know, I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s as old as the house itself.’

‘Never mind that. Can you chop it down ?’

Bob looked shocked.

‘You can’t chop a tree like this down. It’s over 150 years old.’

‘It’s on my land and I want to get shot of it.’

Colin was agitated, sweating despite the cold and his complexion getting redder. Bob took a moment to reply and then spoke more softly.

‘Mr Taylor. I realise it’s on your property but for an oak tree this age you’d need to get permission. I can trim it back for you but there’s no way they’d let you chop it down. In any case, the roots run right under your house. If they die off you’d need to underpin the foundations.’

He walked round to the front of the house and unlocked his truck.

‘My advice is learn to live with it. The other owners have.’

He started to ease his enormous frame into the front seat.

‘There are other tree surgeons in the book.’

Half in and half out the truck, Bob glanced back at Colin who was shaking with fury.

‘Save your money. They’ll only say the same.’

Colin mooched round the kitchen watching the daylight disappear. Another wasted day. Still, at least he couldn’t see that damned tree so clearly. He knew he ought to cook himself a proper meal but he was looking fixedly at a bottle of red wine. Was it too early? Got to watch that.

The phone rang before he could fetch out the corkscrew.

‘Dad? How are you settling in?’

What should he say?. Tell the truth and upset her or just be polite.

‘ Not bad. Takes a bit of getting used to.’

‘Yes, of course it will. Listen, I’ve booked my train so it’s all fixed up. I’m looking forward to a weekend in the country – fresh air, log fires, too much to eat … just like old times.’

Colin stared at the kitchen wall as if he were looking far into the distance.

‘Dad … are you still there?’

‘Sorry … miles away …Yes that’s fine. It’ll be lovely to see you.’

He decided to get some fresh air, pushed open the back door and stepped into the garden. The evening poured over him like a cold shower and he clasped himself round the shoulders. In the gloom all he could see, and feel, was the tree. He rubbed his hand along the thick, gnarled bark, tough enough to withstand anything that nature could throw at it. It would be here long after him. Nothing he could do about it.

The light had gone by now and he felt he could justify that drink. Turning back to the house he felt one of the branches graze his cheek and almost scratch his eye out.

‘Bloody thing!’

Suddenly, Colin felt a gush of rage erupting from deep inside. He grabbed the branch and tugged as hard as he could, trying to wrench it from the trunk. Pulling again and again the branch just swayed in his grasp as if he were a gusting wind that would soon pass.

He felt his strength leave him and began to lean back, panting heavily, close to tears with frustration. As his hand slid down the branch he could feel it swelling in his fist, the tip not so hard and rough. His fingers teased out small soft layers that gave way to his touch. A leaf bud.

Well into its second century and ready to go another round, the tree knew the year was finally on the turn. He let go of the branch, surprised to realise he was worried he might have damaged the new growth.

He leant back against the trunk of the tree, breathing the night in, the deeply lined bark pressing sharply into his back, holding him upright.

Gazing upwards through the tangle of branches he could see a great bowl of stars, worlds spinning on, pin pricks of light in the endless dark.