They say that you can see the old oak from every house in the village. Its stands there, on the village green, as a reminder of all the seasons that have gone before and of all those yet to come. It stands before me now, vast and looming, reaching out to the washed ember of a sun burning the tailor’s chalk from its late September canvass. I am not alone; for early bird song spirals from its heavy branches while the world sleeps on yesterday’s supper, doors shut and curtains drawn, no one notices the boy in the hand knitted jumper walk under the it’s shadow.
On cold winter’s nights it touches the moon with its dark, spectral, fingers grasping at the dreams of those sleeping. In summer, it whispers ‘sweet nothings’ to the breeze while birds gossip in its vastness. They say that the tree is the village; its roots bind brick with sod, modern with old. Older boys say it is haunted by a great owl, black as shadow and larger than a man. They say that it steals babies from prams or small boys from their beds taking them back to the oak’s great branches to eat. We don’t believe that, me, Thomas and Craig. We know the truth; we know it’s a wishing tree. Last winter, we came here, all three and held its trunk tight, with eyes closed against the world and wished for no school and snow. Before we got home, a film of white had settled across our journey and the school had run out of heat. Well, that was last years wish, now I have a new one, just for myself.
It hadn’t taken me long to get here and I had passed the empty playground of my school with its railings freshly painted ‘army green’ to cover the rust. It seemed strangely quiet without the explosion of children running in the light chasing and yelling around the old Victorian brickwork. The bell, which rang every morning and afternoon, hung in anticipation, waiting to call us to our desks and homes. I stopped for a moment to look through the railings, as the milk float whined unsteadily up the road to the clink of bottles, to watch the stillness I had never witness before, a life before the bell. The caretaker, Mr Phillips, had appeared from his cottage in the school and adjusted his flat, cord, cap in a salute to the morning. I watched him place his hands on his hips and surveyed all that was his, reflecting on the quiet and calmness of his realm. Then he picked up a resting broom and placed it in the cradle of his wheelbarrow, manoeuvring it around the pits and gullies of the cracked concrete freshly laid in the heat of summer holidays.
So here I am with an important wish to give to the tree. I hug the Damascus steel of the thick bark, pressing hard against the wood until a wavy pattern marks my face. I shut my eyes tight while my mind repeats my desire over and over again until I’ve built enough words to make it to the furthest most branches. Then I let go and to my surprise an early acorn falls on to the ground. I pick it up and place it in my pocket then run to my grandparent’s house.
My grandfather is waiting for me, leaning on the tightly sprung gate, with a pipe angled out of the side of his mouth. “No school today,” he says, looking at my uniform and without care of time.
I shake my head. “I see,” says he, “you’d best come in then.”
He opens the gate which almost catches my ankles and we hold hands up the path, the portly man in white vest and braces and the young boy in the hand knitted jumper.
My grandmother, flushed with age, comes to the front window and on seeing me smiles and says “best put the kettle on then. Go round the back, it be too nice a morning to waste indoors with the spiders.”
My grandfather and I do as instructed and sit in the vast garden on the bench he’d made when my mother was in school clothes. We talked about the things that old men and boys can, without the awkwardness of fathers and sons and the sun shines in rainbows through his half rimmed glasses. I settle against his warmth and breathing while he holds me in the cradle of his wisdom. I am an adult here, a person in my own right and the secrets we shared will never be told.
My grandmother comes out carrying a tray of hot buttered toast, best china and my grandfather’s chipped blue mug. They looked at each other and my grandfather kisses the top of my head, picks up his mug of tea and disappears in the golden blush that surrounds his shed.
My grandmother and I sit sharing toast and tea in the beauty of a cosy, cottage garden of late summer blooms. She speaks into the air, towards the trees that beckoned our words with the shaking of their leaves. She tells me that life is full of all sorts of challenges, some little, some big, some add smiles, some add wrinkles, some waste tears, and others make your heart itch. She takes my hand, pressing it lightly with a powdery grip and with the other gently pulls my face toward her own.
“We cannot run away from life’s challenges, Dan, we must face them and grow a little with them.”
Then she smiles with honey, puts an arm around me and sings our song to the trees, in a voice now lost with age but more beautiful than the dawn. I close my eyes to stop them crying as my grandmother sings “Danny Boy” to a dying summer and a waking Cotswold valley.
“O Danny boy, the pipes, the pipes are calling
From glen to glen and down the mountainside.
The summer’s gone and all the roses falling,
Tis you, tis you must go and I must bide.
But come you back when summer’s in the meadow,
Or when the valley’s hushed and white with snow.
Tis I’ll be here in sunshine or in shadow.
O Danny boy, O Danny boy, I love you so…………”
We hug by the gate that takes no prisoners when it shuts and I fall into her folds of Damask Rose. She straightens me out and brushes me down so I look like new. As she does she finds the acorn in my pocket. “Yer not be needing this now,” she says and replaces it with a hanky, “now off yer go, yer mother and father will be going frantic, watch how you cross that road”
I turn to wave, as they both stand there, silhouetted against the sun, arm in arm, happy and my heart fills with the biggest smile.
My path home is light for I know I’ve grown into my new, polished, school shoes that danced as I skip.
I open the back door to the brown, Formica kitchen and my mother’s crumpled face; she smiles weakly and hugs me to the beating of her heart. My father lifts me from her grasp and takes me out into the garden. Our garden is manufactured and uniform in appearance, there is no best china out here just plastic cups of beer and squash. We sit on the small bench that is ours, bought last week at an end of range sale and speak no words as father and son often do. I pull at my shorts and he puts his hand in mine. Sometimes there is no need for words.
The car comes at 12:00 noon, just as we knew it would. We passed through the front garden to the lowered whispers of the watching neighbourhood.
“Aw poor little mite.”
“To loose two grandparents in less than a year.”
“Was it almost a year ago, that John passed on, never?”
“Yes, and they were so devoted to each other.”
“Still, it’s for the best, she was never the same after he passed on.”
“Broken heart she died of, I reckons.”
“That boy’ll miss them, always up there he was.”
We pass the schoolyard on the way to the church to bury my grandmother. I watch the other children playing the carefree games I’d be playing tomorrow in my new shoes. My mother’s head is low. I want to tell her about this morning, I want to tell her that they are together and happy. But instead I hold her hand tight and give her grandma’s handkerchief to wipe away the tears.
Danny Boy lyrics written by Frederic Weatherly
Copyright ©RMC Mar 2018 All rights reserved