When I was a child, I used to lie under the huge conker trees that edged the caravan park. I watched the dark dense mass of leaves stir and lift. I breathed deeply. As the sun set, the light caught on the upper branches – so far up, touching the sky – filling me with ideas and possibilities, of where my life might lead.
‘Oh, there you are, you daydreamer,’ my Mum would say, smiling, coming to ask me to help her prepare the dinner, or to say we were about to go out. I’d go with her, a piece of me storing the images, the precise shades of green, of dark and light, for recalling in times when I felt lonely or frightened.
Time passed. At school I read Shakespeare and learned by heart a poem about lying under trees1. I learned about biology, about phloem and xylem, about the placement of leaves being perfectly adapted to catch maximum sunlight, about the power shade produced by the absorption of the sun’s energy. I learned about the constant hidden motion, about the cycle of carbon and oxygen. I learned how long such trees could live – centuries – and I collected conkers each autumn. I never drilled holes in them, never used them to fight or destroy or win or lose, but held them secretly in my coat pocket, fingers curled around the glossy surface as they fitted into my palm.
I grew up. I learnt a job, a profession, I took responsibility. I learnt to be ambitious and driven. I was rewarded. I married, bought a house, had a child. We moved to be near the sea. It was agreed to be idyllic, enviable. I valued success, I was promoted, I became senior partner. I had everything my friends and family wanted for me.
We all aged. My parents moved to be near me. My daughter grew up too. My husband retired. We held parties, with champagne, on the lawn, overlooking the harbour. We didn’t talk about how thin our daughter was to start with. We threw money at our parents’ frailty, at my mother’s worsening dementia. We kept busy. So busy. We had a boat now, as well as the house, to maintain. We had our daughter’s A levels to navigate. Her Oxbridge entrance exams. My pension to think about and the Firm’s succession strategy. That awkward business with the bungled merger. Such a series of misunderstandings. I knew I could steer us through it.
I was tired.
And then Rosa’s anorexia – we had to face it – became a full-time job in itself. I left no stone unturned to find her world-class help. I argued her case whenever I needed to, I got her into the best treatment centre around. It didn’t mean university had to be shelved. Not indefinitely. I worked hard to present a cheerful and positive attitude, especially when I couldn’t avoid the subject coming up. What mother wouldn’t?
We kept going. There was no alternative.
I’d forgotten about trees, apart from managing those in our garden, which in truth were taken care of by our gem of a gardener. But one hot Saturday in May, I’d arranged to meet a friend for coffee. Well, a potential client more than a friend. She’d recommended this place, a garden near a spring with a vegan café. Cool running water, dappled green shade. Trees in their prime.
In the end, she didn’t turn up. She texted, to be fair, but it was too late. I was already there. Irritated – I had plenty to do – I was about to turn around and leave but I realised, with a pain like a splinter driving deep under my skin, that I was empty. Drained. No energy, no power. My limbs felt weak. A blast of suffocating heat passed through me.
I needed to sit down, lie down. I moved away from the people, the tables, to the edge of the garden. To a grassy area in the shade of a mature horse chestnut tree. It was in flower, and coming into full leaf. I glanced around. No one was looking. I laid down and stared up at it.
I felt the years piling up and falling over, falling away. I felt twenty, fourteen, seven. I thought of the lives lived whilst this tree grew from conker to sapling, to majestic great grandmother. My own life. I felt the pressure of doubt in my chest, in my stomach. Vertigo. I had never felt like this. My terror grew, I couldn’t breathe. Was my heart giving out? Was I losing my sanity, having a breakdown?
Come, come. The leaves stirred. I heard my name. I crawled to the trunk and pressed my hands into it. It felt soft, cool, surprising. I watched. I couldn’t see my hands any more. They had taken on the pattern of the bark. I tried to pull them away but they were stuck, fixed. My heart raced, I felt silent tears cascade. Come, come. And then, complete, sudden release. I fell forward against the tree. Enough, enough, enough. Surrender. Relinquish. Let go.
Feelings of bliss ran through each vein, each nerve. A sense of completeness. Wholeness. Of putting everything down. Weightless. Pleased with what is. Enough.
This was many seasons ago. Unmeasured. I wait, I stay.
I watch the little girl lying beneath our branches. I see her look up at us intently. There are so many of us here, each flower bearing witness. Witness to the little girl’s sadness, her wonder, her trust and fear. Her parents call. I watch her start, push something of herself into the background. She jumps up, and runs off to meet them, smiling.
1 Under the Greenwood Tree from As You Like It
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