If all conditions are met, the sapling will continue to grow and mature. During this stage, each tree will grow as much as the species allows and the site conditions permit. It will flower during the appropriate season, reproduce, form fruit, and disperse seeds back into the environment.
If a tree is never harvested, over time it continues to provide benefits until it slowly begins its decline.
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Emma couldn’t believe she was about to do this to herself again, on a school night, but here she was in the dodgy pub raring to go. She downed her drink and started talking to Anita candidly before Leah arrived. Anita was nearer Emma’s age and as a divorcee may have had some kind of insight into crumbling marriages.
“Anita, I hope you don’t mind me asking but what happened with you and Lukas?”
“Wo, that’s a direct question, I am not sure I am drunk enough yet to answer those.” Anita picked up her glass and threw back her drink, “that’s better. Well, let me see…, I hate to seem cliched, but we’d grown apart. We had different expectations, I guess.”
“What do you mean? …How did it happen? …What was the last straw?”
“I can tell you exactly what the last straw was, that is easy. I was putting the washing on, and I put my hand into his crusty, inside out sock and I just thought…”
“I hate that too,” Emma interrupted.
“Well, I just thought, ‘what do I get out of this relationship?’ I mean, I knew what I got out the marriage, a house, children, stability… but suddenly that wasn’t enough.”
“I think I know what you mean.”
“There I was, the mother of his three children, enabling him to work 12 hours a day. I did his shopping, washing, cooking and cleaning. He always had the defence of working to earn money for the family. What did I have? It’s like we, his family, didn’t exist the moment he shut that front door and left the house. Any problems I had with the children was all my responsibility. And when he got home it just felt we got on his nerves all the time. I mean, I was no more than a housekeeper, with benefits, that benefitted him.” Leah arrived.
“What’s all this about?” She sat down with her already purchased drink, placing it carefully on the table.
“My marriage, or rather the breakdown of it.”
“Keep going, I love a bit of scandal.” Leah settled herself and nursed her drink in between long sups.
“Well I was just saying, I felt like an unpaid servant. I didn’t think that if he lived alone, without us altogether, he would be at work 12 hours a day. If he lived alone, would he come back a bit earlier because he had his dinner to cook? Probably. Or if I wasn’t there, but he had children, would he pay someone for 12 hours or would he make sure it was only 10 or eight? If he had to pay overtime, would he be back when he said he would? or would he work late when he felt like it? I didn’t feel like I had equal billing in the relationship, or that he gave me any credit for my side of things, no credit financially or figuratively.”
“So, what did you do?” Emma asked eagerly.
“Well, about once a year, believe it or not, around New Year, he would always ask me how I was feeling, did I still love him? Was I still happy? And two years ago, when he asked, I just said ‘no’.”
“How did he take it? Did he cry? Did he beg?” Leah asked dramatically.
“Well, he was quiet, at first, then quite angry. Thought I had someone else, said ’after all I’ve done for you’ and ’do you think I am happy, working all the time?’ I was hoping we could end it amiably, agree we still loved each other but weren’t happy together. But he was still convinced I was having an affair. He just didn’t get it, that I just wanted to be me again and have the chance to do it my way. I didn’t want the children growing up thinking this was how it was supposed to be, especially not Ray, I wanted him to be different. Anyway, why all the questions?” Emma could feel herself blushing, she wasn’t quite ready to tell all,
“I don’t know, I’m just feeling a bit… ‘misused’, I suppose.”
“Well, don’t take advice from me. I have two gobby teenage girls, a kleptomaniac son and an ex-husband who hates my guts. I’ve been thinking about it and what I really should have done is just told him I’m a lesbian.”
Leah and Emma looked at each other, they took sips of their drinks before Leah asked,
“And are you a lesbian?”
“Am I heck! But think about it, if I’d have said that, and claimed to have been one all along, he could have left with a certain amount of Kudos, for being able to sway me in the first place. He wouldn’t have had his masculinity compromised and it would have made perfect sense to him. ’That’s why she didn’t want sex with me! That’s why she started wearing practical shoes and no make-up!’”
“But it would have been a lie.” Emma added.
“Yeah but, he would probably still talk to me, no one would have found out because I haven’t had a relationship since, the girls may have thought I was cool and Ray doesn’t know what it is anyway.”
“But what would have happened when you do find someone else?” Leah couldn’t quite get her head around this.
“I don’t want anyone else. Do you think I would invite a man back into my life after that? I enjoy being in charge, no compromising. No backing up something you feel is fundamentally wrong. No wondering what sort of mood was going to face you at seven o’clock, no bans on television or comments about how he would do it differently.”
They sat there for a while in silence, thinking it all over. Emma thought about changing the subject to something light and frivolous but as they were talking truths and there was something else bothering her, she asked daringly,
“Have you ever thought, you shouldn’t have had children?” Neither of the other woman answered and Emma felt suddenly ashamed that she might have broken some taboo. She continued because she thought she needed to explain herself. “I mean, I feel a bit tricked really. Ever since I can remember I have wanted a family and I have been trying to understand where that comes from.” She started. “Okay so, my family was a bit dysfunctional, so it probably comes from there but it’s more than that. All through my life, especially from my generation,“ she nodded at Anita hoping for some kind of recognition or agreement, “we were sold an image, in adverts and films and on television, the media, happy families, of a dad and a mum and happy healthy children, it’s less so now, but when I was growing up, on the whole, that’s what I saw. But that isn’t how it is, is it?!”
“It wasn’t all like that, there were some dramas and soaps that were darker.” Anita added looking as if she was trying to remember specifics.
“I know but… I just think that sometimes I had children too easily. I didn’t have fertility issues, so I didn’t think ’do I really want this?’ I didn’t go through treatments or cycles and I didn’t have to pay any money, and I just wonder that if I did, I would have actually asked myself, ’is it worth it?’ ’Is this what I really want?’ Do IVF mothers make better mothers because they want it more? Because they tried harder?”
“What’s brought this on?” Anita asked concerned.
“I don’t know, it just feels that nothing is right at the moment. My husband is an arse and I have produced a deeply unhappy child.”
“Who? Bertie, surely not…he’s always so chipper.” Leah had no idea how bad it was with Clara.
“No, Clara. Well she isn’t that unhappy at home, just at school. But isn’t school a precursor for society. If you just get by in school don’t you just get by in adult life. If you don’t get on in school you either become a millionaire or a master criminal, or worse someone who gets pulled into drugs or gang crime. I’d be happy with an offspring who just worked on the council.”
“Oh God, I think you might be catastrophizing a little bit here.” Anita scoffed.
“May be.” Emma didn’t sound convinced.
“It does get better, parenthood.” Anita sounded less sure now.
“When? You aren’t having it easy with your girls.” Emma reminded her.
“Well, I’ve seen it with my sister. When they grow up, you’ve created a kindred spirit. It’s not about you taking all the responsibility anymore. You have an adult team player, it’s support.” Anita reassured them.
“Well, I think we should tell them.” Emma tried to sound rallying.
“Tell who?” This wasn’t in Leah’s area of expertise.
“All the young women. That you don’t have to have a husband or, if you do, you don’t have to have children. That it’s not all it’s cracked up to be.”
“It’s the same media who sold you your dream family, making out childless women are weird or unfulfilled.” Anita was onboard now.
“Exactly, we can’t allow this to happen. There are some very successful power couples who don’t have children and they are philanthropists and pioneers. And perhaps Chris and I could have been one of them. Or maybe I could have started a new movement for single women one where we are a powerhouse for change and equality. Where we celebrate other single women and start a society of promoting female independence and self-sufficiency!” Emma finished her manifesto animatedly.
“You go Sister!” encouraged Anita. They both looked to Leah for support, she knew their focus was on her and smiled through her drink.
“But seriously, have you seen the new P.E. teacher? He’s hot!” She sniggered.
“Leah!!” Anita and Emma chorused.
“Haven’t you been listening to anything we’ve said!” Emma added.
“Actually, he is a bit of a babe”, Anita agreed, and they all smiled and took another drink.
When Emma got home, she could tell there was an atmosphere. The children were quiet and in bed, but Chris and her mother were still up. Emma didn’t usually plan a night out with the girls when it was her mother’s free babysitter night but, lately she hadn’t wanted to go out on a ‘date’ with Chris. A couple of times she and her mother had gone out to the cinema, to see films Chris would rather have a limb amputated than have to sit through. Chris didn’t ‘do’ drama, he actually saw no point in escapism of any kind. He could tolerate sci-fi, grown up fantasy or films that recreated the historical past, but only if they did it accurately. Otherwise, what was the point. Emma on the other hand lived for escapism. A film which transported her away from the mundanity of her life, felt as if she had been on holiday. If she could spend two hours out of herself, to her it was time well spent. To Emma, a good film or television programme was a fix she needed regularly, she especially liked to be alone where she could cry, laugh and just feel and display it anyway she wanted, anyway it came out.
Chris was at his computer on the sofa and her mother sat in the kitchen flicking through an old Sunday supplement magazine. Paddy got out of bed to greet Emma, then got excited and jumped up at Fiona at the table. Fiona pushed the dog’s paws off her lap and then brushed off her clothes with her hands, after which she held them out as if she needed to wash them, before they touched anything else.
“He smells.” Fiona said, heading for the sink.
“Why aren’t you in the room with Chris. It’s Tuesday, isn’t it that programme you like?”
“I can watch it on ‘catch up’ when I get home, anyway I don’t think Chris wants to be disturbed.”
“What do you mean? He’s only on the laptop.” They went through to the living room, but Chris wasn’t there, it looked as if he had gone to bed. They could hear his footsteps in the bedroom above them.
“Is everything okay with you two. I only ask because he’s hardly said a word to me tonight.”
“Welcome to my world. It’s fine, he’s just a bit…’absent’… at the moment. I would say he’s got a lot of work on, but he never tells me anything.”
“Oh Emma, is it that bad?” Fiona was trying to be supportive, but Emma was too tired and a bit too drunk to go into details now. She felt close to tears when she thought about it too deeply, and she didn’t want her mother knowing how upset she felt, she couldn’t bear the thought of being reminded that, ’I told you so’.
“What’s wrong with you today?” Mary asked. The old woman had the intuition of a sage. Emma was making Mary’s bed and she didn’t say anything at first, trying to think of the simplest answer.
“Well, if you must know I am a little bit hungover.”
“And?” Emma couldn’t understand why her first answer wasn’t enough.
“And… well everything just feels a little bit wrong.” As soon as Emma said it, she wished she hadn’t. Here she was complaining to a woman resident on the ‘end of life’ floor of a care home. Mary appeared to be waiting for more information, her cloudy coloured eyes were studying Emma’s face intently. “Mary? How do you know if you are doing it right?”
“Doing what ‘right’?”
“You know…all of it…child rearing, marriage … life?”
“Oh, you modern mothers. You have more time and money than we ever did and look at you. It doesn’t make you happier. You just spend all the extra time you have worrying about the time you’ve spent earning the money we never had.” Emma thought about this for a minute. “In our day we didn’t have time or money or inclination to even ask if we were, ‘doing it right’. You pay experts to tell you things, you should just know. Buying books on how to raise toddlers and the like. How does anyone know if they have raised toddlers right until they have grown up children?”
Mary was lucid today, Emma looked at her face so animated and alive as if she had been wanting to impart this knowledge for years and no one had asked her opinion until now. It must be the yellow jumper Emma thought, when Mary wore her lemon-yellow jumper, she truly was brighter and more spirited. Perhaps care homes should have compulsory sweatshirt uniforms in lemon yellow and orange like primary schools, perhaps then they could be easily spotted on outings, if indeed there ever were any.
“There are no experts, only a mother my age can be an expert, and then only if they have produced a genius.” Mary went on.
“But seriously Mary, your Davy is a lovely son, he visits almost every week, he always brings you a gift. What’s the secret?”
“There is no secret.” Mary said dismissively as if she was becoming tired of the conversation. “Actually, you want to know the secret? it’s a secret that no mother shares.” She looked at Emma as if she felt Emma should know what she was talking about. “There’s not one of those ‘expert’ mothers who haven’t wanted to shake that crying baby, or walk out on that screaming toddler, close that door and just keep on walking, that’s the secret all mothers have, but no one ever shares. And I’m no expert, otherwise I wouldn’t be left in here to rot, ‘lovely son!’” she tutted.
“I’m not sure that’s fair Mary, you were living with him, weren’t you? Your Davy? Right up until the accident, wasn’t it?”
“Well perhaps I should write a book then. And what I’d say is, ’you get what you’re given, stop complaining and just get on with it’.” And just like that, the light left her eyes again and she stopped suddenly. “When am I going home?” she asked with just a little panic in her voice.
An Easter bonnet parade was all Emma needed today. ‘Who has time to make an Easter bonnet?’ She had asked out loud, many times over, when she received the email from the school. Few people, as it turned out, as there were at least seven children in Bertie’s class who wore a local supermarket headdress from their seasonal aisle. Several more throughout the whole school. Fortunately, only the younger children at the school had to partake. Clara and her class had to write a poem on Spring and new life, something she had no idea if Clara had done. She had just assumed, rather hopefully, as it hadn’t been mentioned, it must all be in hand. Boys were harder to convince to wear Easter Bonnets, and Emma felt it was a little unfair. They had plummeted for a peaked cap with baby chicks stuck on the peak, and it looked quite effective really, but she imagined the chicks would be long gone by the end of the school day.
After standing in a damp, chilly playground watching the parade, Emma was pleased to have met up with her friends, and they headed for the coffee shop just after their children had seen them, but way before the crowd.
“Who thinks up these things? Sodding Easter Bonnets!” asked Anita as she brought the coffees over.
“Someone who doesn’t actually have children, obviously.” Emma agreed.
“Like half the teachers, have you seen them? They look even younger than you, Leah.” Anita said as she sat down.
“Is that a compliment? I am not quite sure…” Nor were either of the other women and it was quiet for a bit while they all thought it over. Emma broke the silence by changing the subject entirely.
“I am going away this summer, and I can’t wait.”
“Oh yeah.” “Where?” Leah and Anita said together.
“Only bloody Florida!” Emma announced grandly.
“Florida, isn’t that a bit hot?” Leah asked.
“Yes, but Chris is earning more, it was his idea and my sister is over there, so we don’t need to pay accommodation.”
“Chris’ idea?” Anita sounded a bit suspicious.
“Yeah, he has suggested that the children head off for the six weeks, I go out for four and he comes for the last two.”
“And that’s okay with your sister? Because my sister won’t even babysit Noah for the night!” Scoffed Leah.
“She asks us every year, only this time we are actually going to take her up on the offer. She hasn’t even met Bertie or seen Clara since she was about four.”
“How are you going to get them over there?” Anita’s questions seemed more and more incredulous, and were bringing up issues, even Emma hadn’t really thought about.
Chris had just mentioned it the previous evening. He was in a good mood for once. He talked about knowing how hard she works; he said the whole family could probably do with a ‘proper’ holiday this year. He had said it would be an experience for the children and give Emma and him a chance to spend some time together, as well as giving Emma a chance to be with her sister, without him being around for a bit. At the time it sounded like a brilliant and thoughtful idea but now it sounded like it meant something else.
“Well, we haven’t thought about the finer details but…” she trailed off, it did sound a bit far-fetched now. Sensing that Emma felt somewhat deflated and that she might have been the cause, it was Anita’s turn to move the conversation on.
“What’s she like, your sister?” she asked.
“I didn’t even know you had one.” Added Leah.
“Well, she lives in America, married a charming American called Landon, and had a lovely little boy, my nephew, Finn. Finn is a bit of a ‘golden boy’, but you know…”
“An only child, it’s easier to have a ‘golden boy’, if you only have one.” Scoffed Anita.
“Hang on a minute, you’re talking about me, you know.”
“That’s what I mean, Noah’s lovely.” She added honestly. Leah seemed appeased.
“Why did she only have the one, if her husband is that charming? If Noah’s dad was in anyway ‘charming’ I think I would have had a brood. As it is, he’s a prick.”
“I don’t think she’s one of those woke women concerned with overpopulating the planet, rather…” Emma broke off.
“…She had something better to do?” Anita completed her sentence.
“Well, yes. I suppose so. She has a great job, finding locations for film productions and in that industry, dream jobs don’t just fall in your lap.”
“I envy those women. I never had anything better to do. All my jobs have been menial. I had children so I could defer the reality of being in a dead-end job. I really wish now I had planned my career a little more ‘meaningfully.’”
“’Meaningfully?’ Like me, you mean? Good GCSE’s, staying on at school for A ’levels, off to university, career in fashion, then love, then Noah, then…” Leah paused… “then even more love and the only man in my life I will ever need.”
“But not the only man you will ever want, sadly.” Anita smiled.
“Not if the new PE teacher is as good as he looks.” Leah said wistfully.
“You aren’t still going on about him, are you?” added Emma.
“Well, I have a new obsession.” Anita whispered conspiratorially.
“Who is he?” asked Leah.
“Not who…what?” Emma and Leah looked at Anita expectantly and once again they knew they were in for a story. “Well, I know the secret to everlasting youth, and it doesn’t cost the earth, in fact it costs a pound.”
“Tell all,” Leah said intrigued.
“I was shopping in Asda.”
“Asda?! You can’t tell me the secret to everlasting youth is available in Asda!” laughed Leah.
“Hear me out. There, in the last aisle, next to the chocolate, are the sweets and they are selling four items for a pound, I get the children a packet of sweets a week for afterschool on Friday, but that leaves me with an extra purchase. And on a whim one week I got something for me.” Emma and Leah couldn’t have looked more confused.
“So?” asked Emma.
“I have started buying sherbet fountains!” Anita whispered as if she was imparting some great revelation.
“Yuk, is that the one with liquorish? I hate liquorish, makes me gag.” Leah mimed the action of being sick.
“Well, I tell you one thing, that afternoon slump doesn’t affect me at all since I have been engaging in my Sherbet Fountain addiction. Not only that, I feel about nine years old tipping up the tube, tapping it on the end and emptying the contents out into my mouth. Sometimes, I nearly choke, and it can come out of my nose in clouds, but I feel great for the rest of the afternoon. Sometimes, I buy the sweets for the children, then five tubes of sherbet fountain for me. One to complete the four for a pound and four more. So, you’ve got one for every day of the week… I know, but you should try it.”
“You want to watch out no one suspects you of using cocaine, going out with white powder on your nose! You could get arrested.” Leah downed the dregs of her coffee, laughing so much at the thought it nearly came out of her nose too.
“I used to like sherbet fountains, four for a pound you say. I might just give it a go.” Emma mused.
Jim’s relationship with Boo-Boo seemed to stall a bit recently. Jim knew they could be together for months yet, but still, it felt different. For a while there, Jim had really believed Boo was his dog, he had based a new friendship on that fact, now it felt as if that could all change. Perhaps he should be thinking of another outlet, another dog, or another source of human contact. He and Emma continued to meet regularly. It wasn’t every day, but it was most Thursdays and sometimes if he was lucky it could be up to three times a week.
Weeks were passing by. There had been some tiny chinks of hope in the weather and new life, regeneration was all around, if you knew where to look for it. Jim considered the trees and how in winter you could see their wooden skeletons, bare but not without life. Each branch and twig seemed ready, they reached up and out expectantly for the next source of warmth and light. They didn’t wilt, they weren’t dead, they were waiting, defying gravity, reaching out. It was a comfort to Jim and something he was surprised to find meant so much. He wondered why people weren’t more like trees, in winter they have a tendency to lock themselves away, wilt, instead of being ready, arms stretched wide to accept good things at any given moment, however brief and fleeting.
‘There’s beauty everywhere’. He said to himself as he headed out on that rainy March morning. His turn to buy coffee. He found himself almost skipping down the High Street, tempted to splash through the puddles now he had the appropriate footwear. Caroline and family had given him a garden centre voucher for Christmas, and when he had got round to spending it, he bought wellies. Just as well because it had been an extraordinary wet winter and spring appeared no different. It was spitting when he bought the coffees but by the time, he’d made the common it was more like a full-on downpour. Other walkers were making their way out of the woods and hurrying to cars and pathways back to the High Street. Jim felt a little silly balancing two coffee cups and pulling a rather reluctant dog. Boo wasn’t a fan of the rain. Jim persevered the weather and the confused looks of the other dog walkers. It was Thursday and he and Emma had agreed to meet and had parted with a ‘see you on Thursday.’
By the time he had reached the clearing with the bench, the rain had passed. Now he felt rather smug, if only those other walkers had just held out a few minutes, if he was not mistaken the sun was about to come out. Emma approached, wading through any collection of water she could. She wasn’t splashing exactly, but Jim could tell she was enjoying the experience of dragging her feet through the water, feeling the pressure of the rubber on her boots pushing against her ankles. He knew because Emma had told him about this and other moments of joy, she looked for every day. Like crunching dead leaves with her feet, in the autumn, ones that had curled into a pocket of air on the pavement or ice cracking in winter, ‘satisfying’ she called it.
“I wasn’t sure you would be here.” She called across to him, “and with coffees too. Good call”
“Well, I thought that was what we had agreed.” He tried to sound nonchalant, as if it wasn’t his idea anyway.
“Looks like the weather may hold,” Emma said, and Jim looked skyward doubtfully as a dark cloud, seemingly coming from nowhere, blocked the sun.
“Pity it’s too wet to sit down. Oh no, did you feel that?” Jim held out his hand. Big drops of rain started to fall, one or two at first then as if someone was turning on a shower the heavens opened.
“It looks like this one will be here for a while”. Jim had to raise his voice over the noise of water splashing on leaves. In the beginning, it looked as if it could go either way, the sun could win through and the cloud would disappear as quickly as it had arrived, but now it looked as if it was here for the day. The dogs looked mournful, looking up at their people as if they couldn’t understand why they were there.
“Shall we just style it out?” Asked Emma but as she said it, the water came down a notch harder. “Look, I’ve got my car today, shall we make a run for it?” They looked at each other and laughed. Each of them imagining what this looked like, two people walking as fast as they could, a half jog, attempting not to spill a hot beverage while the dogs followed on, tails between their legs looking as if they were saying ‘this wasn’t our idea.’ Emma opened the boot of her car and Paddy jumped in, Boo-Boo was a little more reluctant. He didn’t travel by car much anymore and refused to adhere to the instruction to jump up. In the end, Jim had to lift him in, and Boo-Boo looked uncomfortable as he sat down, he was shaking with cold or nerves at this unusual event. Jim and Emma didn’t have time to settle the dogs and closing the boot they ran round to the front seat doors and climbed in. Once the doors were shut and they were in no immediate danger they both laughed at the absurdity of the situation. The car park was empty. Emma immediately took off her coat and threw it onto the back seat.
“Shall I take mine off? I don’t want to get your car seats wet.” He asked. Now they were in the car, where the noise of the rain battered the roof from outside. There was a peace and an intimacy Jim hadn’t been prepared for.
“I think it might be a bit late for that.” Emma laughed and took the lid off her coffee cup sipping the liquid inside. There was a silence between them, that didn’t feel strange at first, then Jim thought about it a bit harder. He had sat closer to Emma on the bench many times but here in the car, right at that minute it suddenly felt on a whole different level. Emma must have felt it too, because for a while she didn’t say anything.
“At least it’s still warm,” she said of her coffee, at last. Jim took his off the dashboard and opening it, took a sip. They looked forward, awkwardly. Jim was thinking of when they had their first coffee together, commenting on the occupants of the cars parked in the car park. What would an onlooker say about them? The windows were steaming up. Despite having known each other for the last six months or so, what did they really know about each other? Jim wondered if Emma might be afraid of him. For all she knew he might be a stalker or some kind of sexual predator. Jim felt uncomfortable.
“So, how’s your week been?” Emma asked, trying to ease the situation, no doubt.
“Oh, you know. The same as usual, how about you?” Jim tried to deflect the questions.
“Well, the same, lots of family stuff. Too exciting to go into, not.” Emma replied. Jim was trying to think why the simple act of sheltering in the car, had changed the dynamics so much, he felt he had to try something to diffuse the awkwardness. So, he tried to talk about something impersonal, as you would to a stranger at a bus stop.
“We have had a lot of rain this year. I don’t know what that means, are we likely to get a good summer?”
“I always think we only get a good summer if we have had a hard winter. But this year, we have had some cold days, but we haven’t had any proper snow days. Just a lot of wind and rain.”
“Boo-Boo isn’t a fan of rain.” Jim thought the safest topic was the dogs, after all it was the dogs that bought them together in the first place.
“I don’t think Paddy minds any weather as long as he gets out.”
“My daughter has said Boo-Boo’s former owner might be buying a house and settling in Manchester, so she might be looking to have him back.” Jim wished he hadn’t mentioned this subject, but it had been on his mind. The last thing he wanted was for Emma to think he wouldn’t be coming for a walk anymore. “I mean, it’s still early days but…yeah.”
“Oh no! How awful for you. What will you do?”
“Well, it was never my idea anyway,” he tried to sound as if he didn’t care, but assessing the look on Emma’s face added, “but I might look for another dog or something. I can always come and walk on the common, without a dog.” He suggested.
“But, would you?” Emma asked earnestly, “Really? If you didn’t have to, on a day like this?”
“I’d like to think I would, but probably not on a day like this.”
“But there’s the companionship too, what about that? You could always get a lodger.” She joked.
“Well, Boo-Boo has felt a bit like a lodger at times. An unpaying guest.” Jim immediately felt guilty, Boo-Boo was in earshot after all, and it hadn’t always felt like that, “actually I will miss the old boy.”
There was another period of silence and the rain slowed down, the drops were barely audible now. After racking his brains for another safe topic of conversation, Jim came out with,
“Well, I expect you have to get to work and I’ve got to get on. My daughter is taking us out for lunch at the café, you know the one you suggested on ‘Beep-Beep Corner?’” Caroline was in fact taking him out, her idea partly for his birthday and partly as a way of enjoying Boo-Boo while he still could, Emma didn’t need to know it wasn’t for another month or so.
“Oh, Okay. Yes, I should get to work.”
“Right”, he opened the door of the car and pulled himself out, he was trying not to look too decrepit for a reason he didn’t fully understand. “Don’t get out. I can get Boo-Boo, you get on.”
Through the opened boot Emma said her goodbyes, but they made no other arrangement to meet again. Emma seemed distracted. Jim couldn’t work out whether it was what he’d said about losing Boo-Boo, or something else. He wanted to watch her driving away, but the car park was quite busy by then, so he waved and turned his back and walked away. He heard the car start up and pull away and couldn’t help a last glance over his shoulder, but when he did, she was gone.
“You look like a drowned rat.” Announced Mary as Emma bustled into the room with her midmorning snack of tea and a rather underdone crumpet.
“And a very good morning to you too.” Emma said mustering as much resolve as she could. Something about today had already made her feel sad. She got days like this every so often, where it felt as if nothing would go right and she should just go to bed and wake up tomorrow with a different attitude. “I got caught in the rain, then sat in the car with a strange man and we talked awkwardly until the windows steamed up, if you must know.”
“Strange men, in steamy cars, I like the sound of that, was he very handsome?”
“I think I may have told you this before, he’s about your age and it wouldn’t matter how handsome he was, it’s just not like that!”
“Are you still seeing him, your man from the woods?”
“’Seeing him’ sounds a bit loaded, but yes I do still ‘see him.’”
“I’m not sure there’s a difference.”
“Well there is, and I perhaps won’t see him much longer anyway. He was just looking after the dog; I think it’s real owner wants him back.”
“Oh dear, what will you do?” Mary seemed genuinely concerned.
“Well, I will have to start by buying my own coffees again, but the walks will get quicker. It’ll just get back to the way it used to be, I suppose. Now drink your tea, it’ll be as cold as your crumpet if you are not careful.” Emma tried to sound light-hearted about it all, but underneath she did feel a sadness and she didn’t really know why.
It was good to have a birthday in May, he had always felt so, since being a child. It was mid-year enough, too early to clash with school tests but not late enough for people to be going on holiday. It was perfectly timed to keep you going through the last month or so of winter and the cooler days of spring. Even at his age he felt a pang of excitement, even if he just had the excuse of pleasing himself for a day.
The last year of his sixties. His sixties. He’d be seventy next year, how did he get to be so old? He had days when he’d think, sixties are the new forties and seventy is the new fifty, but he knew for sure now, he had less time left than what he had already lived. Could be twenty years, could be four. He shook the thought from his head and started to get ready. Caroline would be round soon, they were going to spend the day together, she had even scheduled a day off work! So even she must be thinking it was one of his last birthdays, he thought rather negatively. Still, he had made it to 69, he was one of the lucky ones, well certainly luckier than Ruth.
Caroline had planned to go to Norbury Lane Parklands, it seemed she had suddenly taken an interest in Boo-Boo, after ignoring the chaos she had caused by forcing the creature on Jim for the last six months or so. Caroline couldn’t get her head around the fact that Jim was perfectly happy visiting the local common every day. She thought as a birthday treat, they could take the dog a little further afield and have lunch in the café there. A nice thought he supposed. It would be good to spend some time with Caroline anywhere where she wasn’t looking at her phone and visibly juggling her other responsibilities at the same time. Jim suspected he was just another responsibility on her list in usual circumstances, ’visit Dad -tick’. But today would be different.
It was eleven thirty, they were going to have lunch and walk it off round the woodlands and sand-based heathland of Norbury Lane Parklands. Caroline was on time, but Jim was ready for her. He hadn’t gone to the common that morning but had taken care with his appearance a bit more, he put on a shirt with a collar and shaved and had brushed his hair. It wasn’t everyday a successful, professional woman took him out for lunch, albeit his daughter, and in a café beside a wood. Boo-Boo had reluctantly climbed into the back of her car and appeared affronted to have been guided to sit on the old towel that Caroline had provided. This was the second time in a couple of weeks the dog had been asked to get in a car, and it wasn’t getting any easier. Jim wondered how he had been used to travelling before, perhaps in the front seat?
They pulled into the carpark and Jim recognised the turn-in, as sharp as Emma had described. However, in Caroline’s, ‘monster truck’ car, was the best way Jim could describe it, he felt safe. There was nothing that would take that vehicle on, and if they did, they would be the ones to come worse off.
The café had changed beyond recognition. The last time he’d been here it had been no more than a hut, a wooden structure with concrete floors and a couple of picnic tables inside, that no one ever cleared, they didn’t feel part of the café’s responsibility somehow, just a sheltered spot to eat at. Jim remembered the same tables sat outside the structure, with over-flowing bins you found yourself squashing down to empty the table of the last occupant’s debris.
The new café had a name, The Wind Break, and was decorated in retro stripes, with untreated wood and colourful canvas incorporated everywhere it possibly could be. Benches, booths and cushions in broad white with various brightly coloured stripes, it felt like the café should be nearer to a beach, but it immediately brought back beachside holiday memories, that lifted Jim’s spirits, even more that he was with his daughter. Caroline and Jim locked eyes briefly and they both knew what the other was thinking, they were thinking about Ruth and how much she would have loved it here.
Like all new café experiences, it took a little while to work out the system, was it an order at the table kind of place, with waitress service, do you choose a table or wait to be seated? In the end Caroline took charge, as grown up daughters do, and Jim was happy to be the doddery old father who let her. They chose a table by the window, it was bright and airy there and, if you could ignore the carpark in the foreground, you looked out over hills and trees and countryside which appeared, from this angle, to stretch on forever.
After a lot of toing and froing they decided to go for a homemade soup and bread combo, with a cream tea for after their walk. There was some deal on where they could pay now have the soups then book a table for a couple of hours later for the cream tea. Afterall, it was a birthday celebration.
They talked about many things, between mouthfuls of soup and fresh bread, about Charlotte and what subjects she was going to take at A Level, about Paul’s career and Caroline’s plans. How corporate finance was becoming dull and whether Caroline should branch out on her own. Then the conversation turned to Jim, what were his plans, where did he see himself this time next year? All these questions seemed to be leading somewhere. ’Have you thought about moving into one of those supported living flats?’ and ’what about volunteering?’. Then slipping in ’Barbara has bought the house on the outskirts of Manchester and looks like she will be completing in the next six to eight weeks’.
Caroline had hardly paused for breath, but Jim’s attention was somewhere else. In the car park, a car drew in that he recognised. He wouldn’t have noticed but it was a silvery sporty thing and stuck out against all the muddy estates and 4x4’s. He sat staring out the window, the occupants in it didn’t get out, there was no dog, and no one headed into the café. Caroline was still talking about the parent of her friend who had become widowed and had volunteered and how it had completely changed their perspective on things. Jim wasn’t one hundred percent listening, he looked beyond his daughter and into the carpark, racking his brains as to where he had seen this car and why it was so significant. Did it park at the common? Had he seen it when he was with Emma? Did it belong to one of Peter’s sons, was he collected from table tennis in it? Then the door swung open and a man slunk out, Jim recognised him immediately, first the stylish brown shoe that stepped out, then the casual jeaned trouser leg and business shirt that followed…Emma’s husband! “What’s he doing here?” he must have said out loud.
“Who?” Caroline asked looking over her shoulder into the carpark. Jim didn’t want to go into specifics, something about the situation didn’t seem legitimate.
“Oh, it’s not who I thought it was.” He said hurriedly. “Have you any ideas where I could volunteer?” Jim added trying to change the subject.
“Nice car, whoever it is. But not one you’d see around here much, I imagine.” Caroline turned back, seemingly satisfied with Jim’s explanation. She continued to talk about volunteering opportunities and even got out her phone to look at a specific website that listed all the deserving causes in his area. Jim looked and nodded but every time Caroline looked back down at her device, Jim looked back at the scene evolving in front of his eyes outside. The man had gone round the car and opened the passenger door. A young woman had got out, equally unprepared for the countryside. They stood facing each other, they looked innocent enough, only unnatural and forced. His hand kept reaching out for hers, but he stopped short of actually grasping for it. The young woman looked at him in an intense way, as if he may be imparting some information that her very life depended on, shifting her hair, touching her mouth, biting her lip.
“But we don’t have to talk about this now. We had better go, Boo-Boo must be wondering why we’ve bought him here, and if we don’t get a move on, we will be here until cream-teatime.”
Caroline got up and started putting on her jacket. Jim tried not to seem too interested in what was going on outside, but thought if they were quick, they could witness the completion of the scene. By the time they had got out into the daylight the car was gone and was heading down the gravel drive to the main road. The young woman had got into a Mini Jim hadn’t noticed before and was looking at herself in the rear-view mirror adjusting her hair and reapplying some lipstick. There was a blast of a car horn coming from the main road, some squealing tyres, and then some men’s voices shouting at each other, before Jim could hear a car being hastily driven off and normal passing traffic resuming. ’Serves you right’ thought Jim, then immediately felt bad, it didn’t necessarily mean anything, what he had just seen. Even so he was quiet for the walk and the cream tea. Caroline suspected it was about Boo-Boo leaving, and although that would have been the case, the fact was he had something far greater to think about. What had he just seen, and whatever it was, should he tell Emma?