The Common

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Seedling

Seedling

If all conditions are met, the sprout will very quickly take on a woody appearance. The soft stem will begin to harden and develop a thin protective bark. Leaves or needles continue to unfold in their search for sunlight. The root system continues to filter underground depending on the layout of the land. The majority of a tree’s root system will lie along the upper portions of the soil, where absorption of water and nutrients is prime.

At this point, the seedling has competition. Other trees fight for the same nutrients, water, sunlight, and space. Other threats include fire, flood, drought, ice, snow, disease, pests, and the threat of being consumed by animals. At this stage, the tree is most susceptible to being killed. Providing ample opportunity for the tree to thrive is imperative.

To give a tree the opportunity to thrive, it’s important that you plant the proper tree for the conditions that exist all year long.

© 2019 MR. TREE, INC. ALL RIGHTS RESERVED.

Emma

Emma had just put her bag and coat away and was in the staff room, looking at the board where it told you the focus of your shift. She had breakfasts, then activity one: Community Singing. Food would have been served out by now, her role would be to go from room to room making sure it was being eaten. She had to start at one end of the hall and work her way to the other. She was glad to be seeing Mary but wasn’t so happy about going into Reg’s room next. She had washed her hair this morning and he was known to throw food. Food he felt was too hot, too cold, overcooked, undercooked, well, he just threw food really. At least she’d had a coffee!

“Morning Mary”, she said cheerfully as she opened the door, “and how are you today?”

“Someone’s in a good mood”. Mary sat up in her chair, “Well, I’m not dead, so I suppose that’s something”.

“Oh Mary, it’s being so cheerful that keeps you going.” Mary had come a long way since her confused first day. She now knew she wasn’t going anywhere else, anytime soon and had accepted the fact that she rarely got visitors, except her son. He visited regularly, but never had much to say. Mary even recognised Emma on occasion. Emma had noticed she always seemed more coherent on days she wore her lemon-yellow sweater, and today she had it on. This day was just getting better and better.

“What is this?” Mary had picked up her fried egg, it was solid enough to be held and waved between her finger and thumb.

“I think you’ll find that is an egg, and hopefully it tastes better than it looks and let’s face it, it can’t look any worse.” Emma pulled up a chair in front of the wheelie table that Mary had over her lap. “Now, how can I help?”

“You can help by telling me, what’s put you in such a good mood this morning. Tell me some tales from the outside.” Emma thought for a moment, should she tell a client anything about her personal life? What of professional boundaries? “Come on, a young thing like you, must have some gossip”. Emma was touched to be called young, but considering the woman who sat in front of her, even retiring age might be considered young.

“Well if you must know. A man in the woods bought me a coffee.” Emma used those particular words as it sounded a more exciting opening to a story.

“You ought to be careful of men in woods, especially ones buying you coffee.”

“He’s not a complete stranger, we have spoken before, but not as much as today.”

“I see, it’s like that is it?” Mary had a sudden mischievousness on her face, and Emma felt like she’d caught a glimpse of the woman’s younger self.

“It’s not like that actually, he’s old!” then remembering who she was talking to, “No offence. But I just think he’s lonely. I tell you what though, he’d make a perfect toy boy for you, he’s got a kind face and you can tell he would have been handsome as a young man, well he’s handsome now I suppose.”

“Handsome you say? I see.” There was a silence between the women, as one cut up and fed the other her breakfast. “And will you be telling your husband, about the handsome man, about the coffee?” Emma hadn’t really thought about this and the question threw her for a second. Would she tell Chris? Probably not, it would sound worse than it is. “I thought not” Mary smiled, “I wouldn’t either.”

Jim

He’d been waiting for Caroline’s visit, to such an extent he opened the door just as she was lifting her hand to knock. He had rehearsed a speech but before he could launch into it, Caroline said,

“Good news, someone at Paul’s work will take the dog but only when they get back from their holiday. I have just got to check out the place and let Barbara know, as I am sure she’ll be concerned, and it’s pretty much a done deal.” Jim closed his opened mouth, all that he was about to say was no longer relevant. He was going to say, ‘thank you’, for making him realise just what he needed, that even though the dog may never truly feel like his, he was sweet enough, and that he needed that responsibility as much as the dog needed him.

“And I’m sorry. It was a decision I forced on you, and I didn’t give you time to process it, and it is a big commitment, and we should have really discussed it first. But maybe, when you’ve thought about it a bit, we should go and choose a pet, maybe not a dog, and then maybe we can give it a better name, okay?”

“Great. I was just going to say, I’m sorry, it’s not that bad having him here, we’re getting on okay. It was a good idea, I’m sorry.”

“That’s okay dad, it won’t be long, I promise, just a few more weeks.” Jim felt a mixture of relief and dread. He had made it up with Caroline but had potentially ruined a new friendship, one he was quite excited about.

“How long are you here for? I’ll put the kettle on.” Jim walked towards the kitchen, going over all the implications of Boo-Boo’s departure in his mind. Caroline seemed relieved too,

“I’ll stop for a quick cuppa before school pick up, but I’ll have to go in a quarter of an hour, I just wanted to let you know.” She sat at the kitchen table. Jim noticed how much like her mother she was, flicking through a freebee magazine on the table, and tilting her head in the way Ruth had done. He watched her for a while and truly looked at her. She had obviously come straight from work, she had high-healed shoes on and an important looking lanyard round her neck. Her hair was tied up neatly, and efficiently and he wondered what tribe she belonged to.

“Do you believe in ‘school gate tribes?’”

“In what?” she asked incredulously.

“Oh, it’s just something I heard about.” He said, wondering how he would explain where.

“What are you talking about?”
“I’ve read it somewhere, was it in that magazine?” He pointed to the junk mail pamphlet she’d been looking at.

“I don’t think so, and I don’t know what you mean.”

“Some article, somewhere, was saying that the school gates at pick up and drop off time were as cliquey as the school playground used to be when you were at school.”

“Well, I don’t know about that. I’m very rarely there at pick up and in the mornings, I just breeze in and out.” Caroline had inadvertently answered his question, probably a glamourous over achiever then.

Emma

Emma was surprised to find the house was open when she had got the children after school. She went in carefully wondering if she would find a drugged Paddy and a ransacked house. If anything, the house was tidier and from the coat hanging in the hall she saw that her mother had come after all.

“Hello darling. Hello you two. There’s a treat for you in front of the television. We’ll do your homework later today, your mum’s probably tired.” The children were so taken aback they dropped their book bags and quietly headed for the television, feeling that if they said anything their Grandma might change her mind. “I think we need a chat, don’t you?” Bugger this must be serious, thought Emma.

After a tea was made, they sat either side of the breakfast bar. There was an awkward silence and Emma had a flash back to her mother’s explanation of the facts of life talk, she wished her sister was with her now to snigger with and share embarrassed faces.

“I’m sorry about this morning.” Fiona began. Emma was about to say that it was fine, because it was, they had had the conversation before and it always ended the same, in an ‘agree to disagree’ way, but with more drama. “it’s just that, I don’t want you to end up like me.” This wasn’t what Emma had expected, she always thought that was just what her mother had wanted. For Emma to be as calm and controlled as her, from her neat and stylish dress sense to her polite, punctual ways. “Your father was the ‘breadwinner’ and didn’t I know it. The moment we married he had all the control, he held all the cards. He earnt the money, he decided whether we went on holiday and where, whether we bought a new car or redecorated the house. His moods dictated how we felt and what we said. And I loved you girls, you were the best thing to have happened to me but, I did feel stuck, on the bad days trapped, powerless to say what I felt and do what I wanted. I thought you understood that. I thought I’d taught you to know you need independent wealth because it’s the only way to get real equality.”

“Mum, Chris isn’t Dad. He’s a bit more like Dad than I’d expected but …I think I sometimes I just paint him like that because of Dad. What you taught me was to expect the worse from any man and that’s what’s happening here. We are in a period of transition. Bertie has only just started school and that’s a new thing, we are just adjusting to that change, that’s all.” Emma had got up to go to the cupboard for cake, when her mother stayed silent and serious Emma felt the need to continue. “I mean, I do think I started off on the wrong foot. You go from both working fulltime to going on maternity leave and it all starts from there. I was so used to working fulltime, I just couldn’t sit around. I took responsibility for all the cooking, shopping, washing and cleaning and suddenly it’s your role and the baby comes and it’s still your role and somehow Chris still sees it as this ‘time off’, ‘not working’ and I wish I could just go back to the beginning. Just start from that first maternity leave again, but this time we would carry on as we did before children, sharing the shitty stuff. But Chris isn’t like Dad, if I wanted to, he’d support me to go back to work and build on my career, it’s just that’s not what I want and that should be okay too.”

“If you say so Emma.” Fiona sounded unconvinced.

Date nights had become more and more difficult. Emma found herself trawling through her head for interesting things to say. She had found Chris very short tempered recently. She would sometimes say something she felt was bland and inoffensive only to have Chris react like she’d just admitted adultery. It made things very awkward and she was aware it made them always look like those couples who are out on Valentines night, just because that’s what they have always done, rather than either of them wanting to spend any ‘quality’ time with each other.

Chris was also cagey about his work and what was going on in his head, he had this ‘need to know’ policy on what he told Emma. It was as if Emma’s main aim in life might be to tell everyone and anyone what her husband’s personal and career goals were, and have a bloody good laugh about it. The problem with that was when people did ask about his general health or work life, Emma found it such a difficult enquiry to answer they would often have a bloody good laugh at her not having a clue. Emma’s mother had stirred something up in her, she found herself thinking how ridiculous this all was, daring not to say certain things, certain topics off limits because she was afraid of what reaction she was going to get. No! She was married to this man, she had an opinion, she had the right to express herself, to ask difficult questions and get proper answers.

“I have been thinking about the future and work and everything.”

“Oh Yeah,” Chris said, perusing the menu.

“Well, the children are in school fulltime, perhaps it’s time I took on more.”

“What? Hours at the old folk’s home? Great. We could do with the extra money.”
“Well, not exactly. I was thinking more along the lines of going back to what I used to do.” Chris looked up and out through the ceiling as if he was considering this, “My mum could ‘cover’ the children a couple of days a week…”

“What about the rest of the time?”

“Well, perhaps, we could share responsibilities? You are always saying you feel like you do all the work, this way I can contribute in a more…meaningful way…”

“When have I said that?”

“Well, you don’t have to, it’s in your manner, it’s in your mood when you get home and you don’t seem that pleased to see any of us.” There, she had said it. And now she braced for the fallout.

“Em, I can earn in a couple of hours what you earn in a day, we’d be losing out.”

“At first may be, but there are prospects, promotions, I just have to show commitment for a bit and be reliable, hardworking.”

“What do you mean?” Chris was starting to get a little irritated she could tell.

“Well supposing for a couple of days a week, you went in late so I could go in early, and I would leave early, so you could stay late or the other way around. Just so I could give a whole day of my time to a job and not just a few hours between 9 and 3?”

“This isn’t a good time, I’m about to move jobs, I’m on a real wave of interest in what I do and how I do it.”

“This might be a good time, new employers, start as you mean to go on. Present yourself as a modern man who might want ‘flexible working hours’ to allow your wife’s career to flourish too.”

“I am not going to jeapodise working for this great company, to ask for flexible working hours for the least ambitious woman I have ever known, who might want to restart her career. A career that she hasn’t mentioned for the last ten years. Who have you been talking to? Did your mum put you up to this?”

“It’s just that you want me to contribute, and I get that. I want to contribute, but if I have to work, I want it to be something that I feel proud of, where I use my knowledge and skills and I get recognised and appreciated. I don’t want to be feeding old people and changing beds for the next thirty years.”

After that, the waiter took their order and they sat in relative silence for the rest of the evening, both mulling over the conversation. Emma wondering if Chris would call her bluff and negotiate flexible hours in his new job, Chris considering the implications of not being able to pull the ‘but I’ve been at work all day’ card.

Jim

The next Thursday Jim had got up earlier than Boo-Boo. Jim was up and dressed before the dog had stirred from his basket. He felt as young and foolish as he had once done preparing for dates. He had spent time deciding what to wear, what made him look younger but not ridiculously so. He shaved but didn’t want it to look too obvious, past walks he hadn’t always had the time or inclination to, and now he felt self-conscious of smelling too perfumed and looking too clean.

Jim was ready to leave the house a full half an hour before usual, but he couldn’t leave yet, he would be in danger of being too early to catch Emma at the bench or, meet her buying coffee and he didn’t think their friendship was at the point of introducing each other to people they may run into. That would be too awkward a social situation to navigate through and may well spell the end of the friendship before it had properly begun.

He was waiting for his digital radio clock to show 8.30am when the phone rang at 8.27am. He toyed with the idea of not answering but by the seventh ring decided it might be important.

“I haven’t got you up, have I?” Caroline asked. Jim could tell by the background noise and Caroline’s raised voice she was in her car.

“No, I was just going out to walk the dog, I can’t talk for long.”

“He can wait, can’t he? It’s about the dog I called actually.”
“Oh yes.”

“Yes, I am sorry but the home I was looking at has fallen through.”

“Oh, no.” Jim seeing it was now 8.29am was feigning concern.

“I’m sorry Dad but we went around, and I couldn’t leave him there. They had three children under ten and the way they tortured those guinea pigs, I can’t tell you.”

“Oh dear, well yes, I mean I wouldn’t want him to go just anywhere.”

“Honestly Dad, it wouldn’t be fair. He’s used to being treated like an only child, not like one of a family of small kids, it might even be dangerous, and Barbara wouldn’t like it at all.”

“Okay, well, keep looking.” He said half-heartedly.

“Oh. Okay, I thought you’d be more disappointed?”

“Well,” time was ticking away. If he didn’t go soon, he was going to miss Emma altogether, “It’s just he really wants to go out, he’s scratching at the door now.” Jim used his foot to scrape up and down the door ineffectually.

“Well, I’ll see you soon, it’ll be next week now.”

“Fine, Okay, Bye”. But just as he was about to hang up,

“And Dad, who’s the Prime Minister?”

“Winston Chur…” But she had already cut him off. He realised he wasn’t as organized as he had thought and had to scrabble around to find the lead, poo bags and get his shoes on.

Just act normally, just act normally. He kept telling himself as he walked down his front path.

“You look well, going anywhere nice?” Asked Mrs. Andersen as he got to his gate and she popped up over the hedge.

“No, just about to walk the dog” Had he overworked his appearance?

“Still here, is he? We never hear him, he’s a good boy isn’t he, aren’t you?” She said to Boo-Boo, who looked as desperate to get to the common as Jim was.

“He’s settled in well, I suppose, but we’d better be getting off, take care.” Boo-Boo pulled on the lead and Jim may have exaggerated his power but finally he was on his way to the common. He needn’t have worried, it all worked like clockwork Emma was at the bench, with the coffees and she looked pleased to see him.

“I thought you weren’t coming, and I’d have to have two coffees.”

“No,” He was going to explain about the phone call and Mrs. Andersen but realised it would be too much explanation for what was supposed to be a casual arrangement, “oh, is this for me?”

“I got you a cappuccino, sorry. You never told me what you order.”

“Great, that’s fine.” They sat next to each other and it felt a little awkward. Jim didn’t really like cappuccinos he thought they were way too fancy, he had missed the coffee shop culture, he was actually happiest with the taste of instant granules.

“I didn’t think I would ever say this, but I miss the walks with my children. An adult with children is allowed to behave in all sorts of elaborate and eccentric ways. With children, you can chase leaves, crack ice, swing on low hanging branches, jump in puddles, make shelters with discarded logs but as a lone adult walker doing those things, someone would call the council”.

“Really?”

“Well what would you do if you didn’t know me and you saw me trying to catch a leaf?”

“Why would you want to?”

“Well, I once had a boyfriend who told me that if you catch a leaf falling from an autumn tree, you wouldn’t catch cold all winter. It’s surprisingly difficult.” She got up to demonstrate. Leaves fell from the branches continuously, but whenever she focused on one it would drift and drop in unexpected directions as her hands desperately wafted the air in anticipation of a catch.

“It can’t be that difficult”, he said getting up and putting his coffee on the arm of the bench.

Before long the two of them were circling, sashaying and winding in movements that wouldn’t look out of place in a silent disco.

“Got one!” Exclaimed Jim.

“How did you manage that? Now, out of principle, I have to do it. I will do it!” Emma said stumbling over an exposed root. Jim sat back on the bench reclaiming his coffee triumphantly. A woman in fashionable country wear, strode out of a side path, followed by an overweight chocolate Labrador who rounded the corner into the clearing, they stood for a while observing. The woman and her puffing dog looked from Jim to Emma and back trying to size up the situation. Jim smiled at them. The woman looked as if she was deciding whether or not to side with Jim and raise her eyebrows or whether she suspected Jim was a friend of the leaf chaser and wouldn’t want to be disloyal.

“Gotcha!” Emma snatched one and waved it in the air, twisting victory dance style. Turning she noticed the onlooker and the Labrador. For a split second she thought about explaining but before she could, the woman crossed the clearing in front of them, avoiding eye contact and smiling at the floor, shaking her head. The woman, in her wide-brimmed bushman’s hat, long waxed coat, and long leather horse riding boots marched onto the field, the chocolate Labrador, still out of breath, was struggling to keep up. She looked back at the pair of them suspiciously, as they sniggered like school children when they thought she was out of ear shot.

********

Jim

Boo was still with Jim; the dog had become part of the furniture now. Jim’s days were punctuated with a walk, first thing in the morning, and this tended to set him up for the day. If he had been out come rain or shine, he had achieved something. He could walk to or from the Common and pick up some groceries or coffee on the way there or back. Then even if he spent the rest of the day sitting at the kitchen table re-reading his newspaper or in the living room watching old films on the telly, he had something to tell his daughter if she called or visited. This system didn’t detract from the anguish of Christmas approaching, which had always been difficult, ever since Gareth died.

On the run up to Christmas reminders of children and childhood were everywhere, from the advertisements on television to the displays in shop windows. Christmas was definitely a festival of the young. Jim was reminded of the first Christmas without Gareth. The feigned jollity in an attempt not to impact on Caroline’s right to a happy childhood. She was young, perhaps she wouldn’t have remembered if the day wasn’t celebrated that year, but what else would they do? So, they did the tree and presents under it, they did the crackers and Christmas songs, but they also sobbed in the kitchen and in his empty room, still full of his toys but bereft of him. Caroline was only stringing a few words together at that point, but she seemed to know something wasn’t right, and would ask ‘Gargar?’ at objects and sounds that she didn’t recognise, and in doing so would break her parent’s hearts, just that little bit more.

Now Jim had two losses to accommodate. The first Christmas without Ruth was dark, but people still mentioned her, and cards came. But this second Christmas there seemed less and less people in his life who remembered that Ruth had existed at all. Who continues to send cards to the widower of a friend’s husband, who they didn’t know that well? No, that name gets thankfully deleted from the list.

He hadn’t seen Emma for a few weeks now. He replayed their conversations in his head, was he too weird, did he come across as creepy? He thought they had hit it off well. He thought it was the start of something. He thought she would count as a friend by now, to add to Peter, the other one. Twice he had bought coffee for her on a Thursday and been left walking round the Common holding both cups, he had thought about leaving one for her on the bench as a sign, but then worried about the litter and the wildlife. He thought about offering it to someone else but then thought that that might not work a second time and would be construed as a serial killer’s way in. That would be weird and creepy, employing the strategy twice.

Once he had seen her in the café on the High Street, though he pretended not to. She was with her friends, or as he liked to refer to them, her ‘tribe’. They were loud and jolly and animated, and that wasn’t anywhere near the way he’d felt. He had sat outside the café for a few minutes until he couldn’t bare the cold wind for a moment longer, and although he took his time to leave, Emma hadn’t seen him or if she had, she hadn’t attempted to catch up with him.

Jim had been invited to Caroline’s for Christmas Day, he had managed to get out of staying over-night blaming the dog for the need to return home and keep the routine the same. He found it difficult to spend too long in his daughter’s home. It was so orderly and controlled. Her husband Paul was an exemplary new man who Jim felt showed him up at every turn. Paul’s relationship with his wife and child were in a different league to his and Caroline’s on every level. Jim wondered how anyone could afford this lifestyle. It was straight out of a magazine. Taps that dispensed boiling water, a fridge that dispensed ice, a cooker with more rings and ovens than occupants in the house.

Paul was so modern he appeared able to treat men and women with the same confidence and ease. Everything about him seemed innate and natural, greeting his father in law, laughing with his teenage daughter and her friends, supporting his wife’s work and career while simultaneously verbalising his worry at her conscientiousness, and work ethic, without sounding superior or patronising.

It actually made Jim feel inadequate, inferior and a little sick if he was exposed to it for longer than a few hours. Paul was funny, interesting, and entertaining, handsome, successful, and gentle. Whereas Jim’s marriage just ticked along. He didn’t earn much working on the railways, but with shift work and unsociable hours they had enough, more than enough, plenty even. He kissed his wife on leaving the house and then again on his return, but he never even thought about giving her a squeeze when passing her in the kitchen, in any case, he was hardly in the kitchen. He definitely didn’t greet his father in law with a hug or put his arm round his daughter while they watched the television. In fact, he couldn’t stay long at his daughter’s because he felt he simply didn’t belong there. It wasn’t the way they did things in his time, and it made him feel uncomfortable to be reminded of all that he had missed, the potential he never reached, potential he didn’t even know he was supposed to have.

When he got home after being away nearly five hours, Boo greeted him at the doorway, and he felt himself relax, this was his domain. He made a cup of tea and a start on the box of Milk Tray Mrs Anderson had left wrapped in Christmas paper on his doorstep. As he sucked the fondant out of an orange cream he thought how he must give Mrs Andersen a gift, may be some of the tea towels he had been given, or return her some Christmas chocolates that would be on sale by now. Maybe he’d tell her he’d had them all along but hadn’t the chance to drop them by.

Emma

It seemed a while since Emma had come up for air. Chris had his new job and as with all of his new jobs, he spent a honeymoon period of working long hours and again when he got home. These periods could last up to six months, then the fatigue would set in, then the disappointment, then the disaffection, and then he would find something else. On top of this, her mother hadn’t been around because she was off visiting her sister Catherine in the U.S., something Emma suspected she would do more and more frequently in the winter months. Although somehow her sister avoided having her for the actual Christmas holiday period, she had noticed.

Emma’s shifts had changed at the Friendship Care Home as the annual exodus began. In care homes, Emma had observed, people realise that Christmas is approaching, and anticipating that they may be required to do some antisocial shifts over the holiday period, leave care work in droves. Her whole routine had had to change, she rarely got out with the dog in the mornings and had to do it just before school pick up, or even round the block in the evenings in the dark. Every so often she would think about Jim, and the coffees, and realise she hadn’t had the chance to explain. As the days became darker and shorter and the weather more miserable, she wondered if he was okay, wherever he was.

She and Chris had never returned to the conversation of her career. It turned out she hadn’t even been able to take on more shifts at the care home, as Chris’ job required lots of overtime, and a few weeks into the position, Chris had been working some Saturdays too. Emma felt resigned to the fact that, for now at least, things would go on as they were.

It had been the school Christmas production. Clara’s year had had speaking parts, although Clara had declined to take part. She sat at the back of the choir in her school uniform, when her classmates were dressed up in various costumes smiling and waving at their parents. Schools don’t seem to be content with nativities anymore, thought Emma, the stories get more and more elaborate, and usually include animals from all over the globe, and random stories from the perspective of a flea on a donkey, in the style of a news report. Luckily in Reception, the children were allowed to wear any costume they had at home. They were encouraged to wear national costume or traditional shepherd or angel outfits. However, what they actually got were, two children in football kit, a Buzz Lightyear and at plethora of Superhero’s and Disney Princesses. Fortunately, four and five- year olds can wear anything and sing along to a couple of songs, badly cued from the schools limited internet access, and melt the heart of even the most jaded of parents. And Emma felt jaded today. When she managed to get a seat next to Anita and Leah she felt better, and better still when they asked her to join them at the coffee shop in the High Street afterwards.

Anita had run on ahead to get seats and the order in, while Emma had waited for Leah, this being her first nativity, she was finding it difficult to tear herself away. By the time they had got to the café, Anita had done both things and was standing up at a table waving two thumbs up to get their attention. As Leah and Emma squeezed passed other desperate coffee withdrawn school mums Anita announced loudly,

“Well, there’s an hour of my life I’ll never get back”. Some of the other school mums looked up, you couldn’t tell whether they were in agreement or offended by the comment.

“What do you mean, I loved it. Weren’t they all so sweet? I loved Ray’s costume, what team was that?”

“The Arsenal away kit, it’s the only thing I can get him to dress up in. I am glad I’m not trying to get it off him and back into school uniform.”

“And Bertie looked a picture, was he an angel or a shepherd?”

“Well a bit of both really, we couldn’t commit, so he was more like a king.” Emma shortened the longer version of the story, that included a mass tantrum about not wanting to look like a girl, and a transaction of Lego that would be happening later.

“I notice Laurence got a speaking part, and what’s with the Alpha-Mums saving all the front row seats?”

Emma and Anita looked at each other, as if to ask who would like to explain that one, and Anita took on the role.

“It’s a PTA strategy. Mum’s who ‘help out’ selling teas and coffees to the waiting queue, get to save the front row of seats because they are ‘helping out’ and wouldn’t get a seat otherwise.”

“Oh, I see.” Said Leah knowingly.

“Not that they would admit to it. There’s got to be some perks to the job, I suppose. Anyway, what have you all been up to? Emma?”

“Well, not a lot really, Chris got a new job and I don’t seem to see him much, he’s very busy making an impact. How about you?”

“Oh, you know, cow-bag teenagers and trying to remember how to teach Ray to read.”
“Seriously, how do you do that? It’s driving me mad. Noah will read a word like ‘the’ on one page and forget it the next. I try really hard not to scream at him, but you know, really!”

“It’s definitely hard, but you just wait, as they get better at reading the books just get longer and longer and the non-fiction ones…” Emma felt like she had only just finished the process with Clara.

“Oh God. Soil was a good one, The Life of Plastic I could just not put down.” Anita added sarcastically.

“Yeah, Biff and Chip are positively page turners in comparison to the non-fiction selection. Think of something, anything, you have absolutely no interest in learning about and there’ll be a primary school non-fiction book about it.”

“Isn’t that Jim?” Leah interrupted nodding her head subtly.

“Jim, Jim who?” Emma looked towards the man at the counter.

“You know, your walking friend…the one we saw when we were out that night.”

“If I remember rightly, he helped us get a taxi, didn’t he?” Leah closed her eyes trying to recall the end of the night. Emma looked and as Jim turned slightly to pay, she recognised him and guiltily remembered the coffees.

“Is his name Jim? I’ve been talking to him for months and I didn’t know that, and I was slightly confused when he started to call me Emma.” The group laughed and Jim looked in their direction but didn’t seem to ‘see’ anyone. Emma saw he looked tired and old, he scanned the cafe for a spare seat before pulling up his collar, picking up his coffee and heading to the door.

“I remember because he introduced himself to us at the pub, remember?” Anita prompted.

“I have a vague recollection”. Emma said between her teeth, she watched Jim through the glass, he bent down to unhook, what she assumed was Boo-Boo, and sat down at a table outside.

“He’s sitting outside, in this weather. Let’s ask him to join us.” But something in Leah’s tone made Emma think that wouldn’t be a good idea, the girls were jovial today, and she could tell this was one of the ‘bad days’ Jim had told her about before. After that Emma was distracted, she was only half listening to Leah and Anita’s conversation, only contributing when asked to. She decided to speak to Jim, if he was still there when she went out. Then she would explain everything.

“So, Emma, has Chris’ new job got any ’perks.”

“Not unless you call keeping him out the house a ‘perk’” said Emma.

“Which I do, actually” Anita chipped in.

“Since he started, he just seems to work more and more. More evenings, practically every other Saturday, I wouldn’t mind if it meant when he was with us he was a bit happier, a bit more ‘engaged’.”

“Isn’t it funny how husbands think when you are staying at home, looking after the children, you are not working. But then on the weekend looking after the children is too much like work for them to actually do.” Anita hadn’t been with her husband for nearly two years, but she hadn’t forgotten, and wouldn’t forget in a long time. Leah gasped,

“Maybe he’s having an affair!” she announced and then felt immediately as if she wished she hadn’t said it.

“Great Leah, make Emma feel much better, won’t you?”

“Oh, I’m only joking, but I did used to babysit for this couple with two daughters. And one day the mum said her husband had changed his routine a bit, and was working later and at the weekends on a ‘big project’. She said that that was a sign of an affair a ‘change of routine’. Anyway, I reassured her, like only a student of nineteen could, but when I went back after the summer…it had been true, he had been having an affair and she’d kicked him out!”

“Seriously, Leah, I’m not sure you’re helping.” Anita elbowed Leah playfully. But Emma wasn’t fully concentrating by then, Jim had left the table outside and she hadn’t noticed which way he had gone.

Jim

When Peter hadn’t turned up at table tennis on the Tuesday between Christmas and New Year, Jim hadn’t been worried. Jim had imagined he’d been invited to stay with one of his sons over the holiday period, but two weeks into January when Peter still hadn’t returned on Tuesday nights, Jim did start to worry and he asked around to see if anyone had heard anything about him. Apparently, David’s wife had heard that he had had a fall and was recuperating in a care home. Jim had asked if she knew which one, and a week later David told him it was the Friendship Care Home.

This must be one of the biggest reasons not to own a dog, Jim thought as he wrapped up as much as he thought he could, and headed out. Boo-Boo didn’t seem to notice the weather. Cold or raining, nothing seemed to curb his enthusiasm for a walk. Perhaps that’s the biggest reason to own a dog, it occurred to Jim, the impetus to get out even on the days when it never truly gets light. Getting out did always make him feel better, not much, but definitely some. As he unlocked the door and fumbled with keys and collars, he noticed Mrs Andersen leaving her house at the exact same time. His first instinct was to turn around and quickly disappear back inside, on the off chance she hadn’t seen him. But Then Jim remembered the Christmas biscuits he had bought in the sale and wrapped up a few days ago with the idea to pass them on to Mrs Andersen with some, “sorry I missed you over the festive season,” explanation. Jim did duck back inside but only to retrieve the present.

“Sorry, I missed you over the Christmas period, Mrs Andersen, I’ve been meaning to give you these, I can’t believe it’s the 21st already.”

“I think you will find it’s the 28th today Mr Clarke, but it’s never too late to accept a Christmas present. I notice the dog keeping you busy, you can set your clock by you two, up and out of a morning.”

“Well, nature calls Mrs Andersen. Did you have a good one?” Jim realised this was a bit of an awkward way to ask the question, but he felt the need to continue on the subject of Christmas as it might avoid any other in depth conversation about how he might be doing generally, as at the moment he wasn’t feeling at his best.

“What? Christmas? Well, it was alright, but it’s really for the kiddies isn’t it? It’s just another day to people like me.”

“Yes, well.” Jim was stuck for something else to say. Luckily for him Boo-Boo was pulling on his lead and Mrs Anderson’s taxi drew up to the gate at the end of her garden. “Off to the doctors again today?” He nodded towards the waiting taxi.

“Doctors!? Not at all, my sister and I have treated ourselves to a day at the races. Tally-ho!” Mrs Andersen bustled down the path and was helped into the car by a cheerful looking woman of similar age and dimensions. Watching her being swallowed into the Silver Ford Saloon, Jim noticed now that she was wearing something flowing, and sparkly, and a hat that wasn’t simple and practical like the woolly hat he wore, but was bright and frivolous and had something of the dead animal about it. The car beeped as it pulled off and the whole exchange had left Jim feeling even more bereft than he had before, something he felt couldn’t have been possible. Not only that, but he realised he was still holding the wrapped-up biscuits in his hand, which meant they would be due another interaction soon.

Jim made his way to the common, head down. It was cold but not freezing, daytime but not light. The trees were black and bare, and the ground was wet, a few stubborn leaves were still dotted about, damp and decaying. Jim walked the same route everyday around the common. It was the right length, took about the same amount of time, and felt long enough to give Boo-Boo a run but not long enough to tire either of them out. Not only that, it was the best route to find Emma on.

Today too many people were around, and Jim felt irritated about it. Why would anyone come out on a day like this? He asked himself, without a hint of irony. There were three women walking in front of him, with their designer dogs. Walking too slow, too close but then again too fast to overtake. He couldn’t decide whether to keep going, clipping at their heals, or try marching by them. In the end they must of heard him because they stepped aside, he smiled at them as he passed and nodded, which was at least as much as you would normally do to a lone walker, but the women didn’t acknowledge him at all, but carried on talking as if he wasn’t even there. Jim wondered if he was there, he felt so invisible and insignificant today. He couldn’t help uttering a harrumph, as he passed, like the curmudgeonly dog walker he felt.

When he saw a man, with a handful of various dogs on various length leads round the next corner and just a few metres ahead of him, he took a different, empty path begrudgingly, somewhere he hadn’t walked before. He felt sure it would meet up with one of the paths he was familiar with, eventually. He wasn’t far a long it, when he noticed the bark on a cluster of silver birches. They were illuminated. Their trunks looked florescent. He looked about for a source of the light, car headlamps shining through the trees, a torch perhaps or environmental agency workers managing the common under generator light. There was nothing.

On this, the darkest of days, these trees were emanating life. Suddenly he felt a different sensation, one that he couldn’t easily recognise. Jim wondered if he was about to faint as his head swam a little. He felt better, the irritation had passed. He took a deep breath and followed the silvery barked tree trunk with his eyes up towards the sky. The dark branches that crossed over the path, above his head reminded him of something. A memory, a reverence. Then it struck him. He felt as if he was in a place of worship. Yes, certainly it was reminiscent of a grand church or cathedral. Trunks like pillars, and branches arching across the path like ancient wooden beams, surely the architects of those days must have taken inspiration here, deep within nature.

Jim had been a Christian; he had had faith. It had been drummed into him at home and school and he had followed without question throughout his early life, through marriage and the births of his children, right up until the moment of Gareth’s death. After that he just felt angry at worst and disappointed at best. What kind of supreme being would take a child, an innocent child? A child who had never done anyone or thing harm, who had done nothing but love and laugh and give happiness to others. He felt as if something had been stolen from him, not just a child but a whole lifelong relationship. There would be no football matches watched, no prizes awarded, no graduation, no father of the groom speeches, no talks in the pub, no imparting of his opinion or advice. Jim felt he had lost, not just a child but a future friend, a confidant, a kindred spirit. And he wasn’t ‘lost’ but stolen from him. For a while he went through the motions, he listened to the vicar’s words of comfort, he continued to go to church and listen to the forgiveness and the salvation and the love, but he no longer felt it. Gradually he missed a few Sundays, when he had taken weekend shifts to avoid it, and over time he managed the big festivals but then he stopped altogether. What was the point of believing in a God that couldn’t prevent bad things happening to you? He couldn’t hold with the idea that his pain was only as much as God thought he could bare, because it was unbearable, as unbearable today as it was then.

He didn’t much remember Gareth animated anymore, not his voice or spontaneous smile or infectious giggle, he was just a series of photographed poses he had around the house. Looking up at the camera on the beach, kissing his sister’s forehead, while clutching her wrist a little too tightly, when she was first bought back from the hospital. Snapshots of his short life. Jim was looking into the floor of the forest concentrating on conjuring up one actual moment from Gareth’s life, when he heard something in the trees a little way off from him. He looked up to see a deer bound effortlessly across his path. A split second of such grace and beauty and it was gone, he looked around to see if Boo-Boo had witnessed it too, he even said,

“Did you see that?” out loud but the dog was sniffing the base of a tree trunk and although he looked up as if he’d heard something, he soon returned to his previous position, having decided not to investigate further. After replaying the experience in his head, a couple of times, ‘a deer in the woods and only I saw it’, Jim quite suddenly and quite irrationally felt angry. On today of all days he wasn’t in the mood to feel the presence of God, or the spirit of his deceased son. How dare that deer pick him, today. He walked on faster and more motivated to just get home, where he could fester alone, when the path broke through into a familiar one. He knew where he was. A spaniel came out of nowhere and cheerfully wound around his feet. Jim almost tripped over the bloody thing, he was lifting his feet awkwardly to avoid falling over, and then his boot must have landed on the animal’s foot or tail or something because it yelped.

“Did you just kick my dog?” a woman asked briskly from behind Jim.

“No, I didn’t kick your dog, but I think I might have trodden on it.”

“Well you should be more careful.” She snapped.

Jim would have said something along the lines of, ‘well you should control your dog better.’ But just now he wasn’t up for confrontation, he just took it. He looked at Boo-Boo as if to draw the woman’s attention to the fact he was a responsible dog owner of a healthy, well balanced dog, but Boo-Boo was some way off and was looking in the other direction as he was trying to distance himself from his embarrassing owner, pretending to be someone else’s dog. ‘Bollocks to the presence of God’ thought Jim, ‘how can such a moment of beauty be followed by such an unpleasant one.’ He couldn’t wait to get home and stalked off hurriedly.

******

This was the first time that he had seen Caroline since Christmas. He wanted to present himself as the epitome of coping. Preparing for the visit by looking at himself in the mirror, he had rehearsed various faces in an attempt to come across as ‘coping’. The nonchalant smile, the contented eyebrows, the confident tilt. Whatever he tried, it seemed to him, he only had two expressions, morose melancholia or mildly manic. The doorbell rang. He chose a neutral smile, showing no teeth, with relaxed eyebrows, deliberately attempting to not knit or raise them. He went to the door.

“Oh God, what’s happened?” Caroline crossed the threshold and dumped her bags and immediately took Jim by both hands and guided him out of the darkened hall and into the light of the kitchen. “You look terrible, I knew something was wrong on Christmas Day, I could tell you weren’t yourself on the phone the other night, what’s happened?”

Jim could have told her about the short days sitting in near darkness, the chill of the house in temperature and atmosphere. The fact he had spent an inordinate amount of time remembering two people who had left his life prematurely and thinking about two more people who had appeared to drop away from him over the festive season. But instead he said,

“I think I might be coming down with something”.

“I’ll make a cup of tea, you sit down, I’ve bought biscuits and I have an hour as the course I’ve been on finished early and I don’t have to pick Charlotte up until four.” Caroline took off her high-heeled shoes and fitted jacket, fighting with the lanyard security pass round her neck which got caught in her neck scarf and neatly tied back hair. She pulled out the tucked in blouse and unwound the scarf. Jim was struck by a memory of her as a schoolgirl, stripping off the confines of school life as soon as she walked in the door. With Ruth following around after her picking up strewn items and putting them in their proper place. He smiled at her.

“What?” she asked, just as would did then.

“Nothing. You Okay?” He sensed from Caroline’s demeanour that something might be troubling her. Her face began to slip a bit from its predominately controlled air.

“I miss her dad. I miss my mum. I miss having her to talk to, I miss her opinion and unwavering support. I miss her advice even if it used to annoy me.”

Jim did something he had never done before, instead of thinking of something quasi-supportive and insipid to say, which wouldn’t have been out of place in one of those cheap modern day greetings card, “Don’t Give Up”, “You’ll feel better in the morning”, he just embraced her. And she folded into him, as if they had been demonstrative their whole lives and not as if this was the first time, he’d enveloped her since she was in nappies.

They stayed there for what seemed a long time, neither one of them wanting to move. At first it was because this was just what both of them needed, but once that feeling had passed, neither one of them knew how to let go. Each of them had tears in their eyes and couldn’t remember having done that before. Then there was the embarrassment of showing each other a weakness.

Later after Caroline had gone Jim notice her security pass lying on the floor, it must have fallen off the arm of the sofa. Jim picked it up and studied it. It must have been from the course Caroline had been on that day. It didn’t have any important information on it just a company logo and the word ‘Visitor’, printed on one side of the plastic and a red cord to hang it around your neck. It made Jim think of Emma, a lanyard, he wondered if he would ever meet her again.

Emma

Emma sat on the bench flicking the hair out of her eyes for the umpteenth time that morning. Fumbling in her coat pocket she found a hairband she must have picked up at some point. She always squirreled away hairbands, knowing that it wouldn’t be long before she would be running around the house, shouting, desperate to tie up Clara’s hair, seconds before they were supposed to leave the house. She found it between the old tissue that almost certainly wasn’t hers, last season’s conker, collected by her son and a dog poo bag. Emma absent mindedly combed her fringe in her fingers, and held it up and away from her eyes in the band, not caring that she resembled a show pony. She lifted her face in the sunshine closing her eyes to feel the warmth on the frosty morning.

By her side sat two cups of coffee, one of which was contained in her favourite Christmas present. Emma’s sister, Catherine, had sent it back with her mother when she’d visited. An American state of the art travel coffee mug. It was light, portable, eco-friendly and thermal, she had been looking forward to using it. If Jim didn’t turn up, she would be drinking the coffee from there, if he did, she would offer the pleasure to him. Emma hoped it would be her pleasure though.

The preoccupation with the mugs took her mind off her recently cut hair. An impulse booking, taking advantage of a New Year deal at the trendy salon in town, in the week after New Year’s Eve. For years now, since having children, she had barely looked at herself. She could remember choosing outfits and changing multiple times in the past. Patterned tops, with the plain trousers, patterned trousers with plain tops and back. Decisions made determined by weather, mood, and occasion. Those days were long gone, as were the days of blow drying or styling her hair. She had always yoyoed from short to long, a friend had described her as having a ‘John Lennon’, explaining that he never found his style either. Some celebrities find a cut and stick to it, Judi Dench style, others ‘John Lennon’ it.

Since having children, she had used the salon on the High Street, it didn’t seem that ‘local’, it wasn’t just old ladies and school children, or so she thought. The only problem there was, whenever she had felt like a change, when she had gone in with the intention of doing something drastic and dynamic, the hairdresser always seemed to churn her out looking the same. Over the years, once she had recognised this, she would go in with more and more specific instructions but no matter what she tried, she came out with the same ‘graduated bob’.

“I was thinking, shorter this time”, she would start with. “Perhaps shaped at the back with a longer front.” She had stopped short of cutting out pictures from magazines, she wasn’t interested in looking like Gwyneth Paltrow in Sliding Doors. She wasn’t delusional, she knew however many pictures she bought in, if you weren’t the actual model you were unlikely to look remotely as good as them with their style. After describing her life-style, how often she washed her hair, how often she blow-dried it, what products she used, the hairdresser would always say,

“Have you thought about a graduated bob?” and Emma would just silently fume throughout the process and struggle to hide her indifference at the end of the cut, before begrudgingly handing over the money and vowing never to go back there again.

This new year, though, she decided, this was the year of the new Emma. She was going to invest more time and more money on herself. She was going to try and infiltrate the realms of the career mum. No grey, smooth style, chic. She was looking for an expensive stylist with vision, someone who was as much psychologist as hairdresser. Someone who could read her. Instinctively know that she was bored and unsatisfied with her life and position. With that in mind, she made an appointment at the most expensive salon she knew, requesting the most expensive stylist. What she hadn’t realised was, that hairdressers were very much long-term partners. They required time, commitment, and loyalty. No hairdresser produces the goods on the first appointment, just as no long-term partner sleeps with you on the first date. This is something you have to build up to. Go for consultations, perhaps do a blow dry for a wedding, and then gradually over a period of up to years, a hairdresser might tell you about some secret product, or what style would bring out your cheek bones, or what colour would suit your skin tone.

What Emma had effectively done was blown a lot of money on a big first date, only to realise the hair stylist was cautious, he’d been hurt before, giving all his advice, and having his heart broken when the client failed to return. Hairdressers must be quite underconfident, spending days wondering what went wrong? Why didn’t they book a return appointment? A Hair stylist’s ‘vision’ is cautious, just as Emma would be on a first date. She wouldn’t want to suggest the names of her and her date’s unborn children or where she can see them living in ten years time. A relationship with a hair stylist is built on trust, it takes commitment and hours to get to know someone, how you take your coffee, whether you go abroad for your holidays, whether you are single or have children. Emma had been unrealistic in her expectations of her first date. She had learnt her lesson the hard way.

“You’ve done something different with your hair”, Jim sat down next to her on the bench watching the two dogs reacquaint each other on the grass in front of them. Without opening her eyes, she smiled.

“Nice of you to notice”. There followed an awkward silence. “It wasn’t exactly what I was hoping for. Help yourself to coffee.”

“No?” Jim hesitated, choosing between the two cups. As Emma had her eyes closed he had time to consider his choice. In the end he decided to take the take-away cup as he recognised the other one as new and realised it was probably something to do with Christmas.

“No…I was a victim of advertising, ‘New Year, New You!’ It was a bit more ‘New Year, Same You, in a slightly odd colour’. Jim took a sip of the coffee and was surprised to taste a cappuccino. Was it too late to request Americano’s?

“Umm. Thanks for the coffee,” and returning to the conversation that really mattered, “It’s not ‘odd’, it’s just ’different”.

“Please don’t use the word ‘different’ people only use that word when there is absolutely no other word to say that seems positive’. She opened her eyes to reach for her coffee pleased at Jim’s choice of cup.

“Well what did your husband say?” Jim attempted to deflect the responsibility of words of support.

“He said, “What took you so long, the children haven’t eaten, have you dyed your hair?””

“Umm.”

Jim

They sat in silence. Jim fighting the urge to close his eyes to the sun as Emma had done. But when he saw Emma return to the pose decided to follow suit. Then he remembered the gift he had in his pocket and rammed his hand in to present it to Emma.

“I have something for you.” He pulled his hand out of his coat pocket, “don’t get too excited, my daughter left it at my house, and I thought of you.”

Jim realised that sounded a bit naff, my daughter left it? What was that supposed to mean? Still, Emma took the jumble of plastic and cord, wound round each other, and he could see her preparing herself for a response. What was she going to say? How was she to react? She unravelled the cord to find it was the tie that held the plastic round your neck.

“A lanyard!” she laughed, “an important looking lanyard! Just what I always wanted!” Emma hugged him, she genuinely appeared grateful for the thought. Emma seemed grateful someone had listened to her and acted on her whim. Jim felt pleased with himself for getting it right.

“Well, it hasn’t got a picture on it, and who actually reads them. I thought you could wear it at school pick up and drop off on those days when you need some extra armour.”

“Oh, that’s very kind of you. I think I might be needing that at some point soon. I’ve had a summons from the Head about my daughter. I don’t think she fits in… ‘socially’.”

“I wouldn’t worry about that, who does?” Jim could see Emma had an air of concern about this and tried to show some concern back. “And anyway, who wants to?”

Emma looked like she might cry.

“When does it get easier?” she asked. Jim noticed she was on the cusp of tears and the effort of trying not to, made her voice waiver. Jim looked deep into the trees, when he looked back at her, he caught her looking at his profile and studying his face.

“…it doesn’t…” He said.

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