A Short Story
The Boy Sat Under The Tree
The boy sat under the tree, his jumper pulled up over his face and head in such a way that he was looking through the jumper where his chest should be. He closed his eyes. It was warm in here and smelled of skin – his skin. His breathing heated the space and maintained the smell. Outside – outside his jumper – the sky had turned grey and big drops of rain had started to fall. He had seen them (before he retreated into his woollen cave) dropping like clear marbles onto the grass beyond his place of safety. A wet plop hit his bare leg. He pulled his knees up and pushed his back into the trunk of the tree. The jumper slid down as he moved. The cool air and smell of rain greeted his face.
His eyes opened. He hugged his knees close in to his chest. He looked up into the branches of the tree. The foliage umbrella would keep the water out for a while but already intermittent drops were invading the dusty space around him. Would the rain ease? If he waited would the sky brighten? Would he be able to walk home dry apart from a little mud on his shoes?
He pulled his arms out of the sleeves of his jumper and into the garment’s chest area and again pushed the jumper up so that his head and arms now hid within the chest space. He felt as if he was in a small tent. The trouble was that the cold air was getting in at the bottom and chilling his midriff – particularly since his t-shirt had ridden up. He pushed it down into the top of his shorts – but the movement resulted in his head popping back out of the neck hole of his jumper.
He re-threaded his arms into his jumper sleeves. The rain was getting heavier. If he made a dash for home now he would get soaked. He would stay put for a while. Anyway, he liked it here - under the tree. Even outside his jumper-tent there was something cosy about the dusty ground under the thick green canopy.
The tree was at one end of a little oval of land that was almost an island. A river ran along one side and water from it flowed into a ditch that all but encircled the rest. The bottom of the ditch was an oily, wet morass. Drop a big stone in and it got sucked down to oblivion. A small land bridge lay just beyond the protective fringe of the tree where the boy sat. In a dry summer the bridge was solid ground but after rain it became boggy – and after a lot of rain the oval of land became a true island, cut off from the grassy field beyond. If the rain continued now this land bridge would become so wet the boy wouldn’t be able to cross it without mud and water coming up to his ankles. He wasn’t worried. Years before the boy was born a punt had somehow become wedged and abandoned in the water filled ditch. The stern abutted the island and the prow reached the other ‘shore’. The bottom of the punt had rotted away in parts but the sides rose vertical from the muddy water and were topped with a strip of wood in which the rowlocks still survived. The strip was just wide enough to walk on – “tightrope fashion” - and the punt was used as a bridge by the handful of local children who knew about the island.
A patch of evening sky started to emerge from the grey clouds but the rain continued. The leafy umbrella was leaking more now. A little dribble of water had started to come down the tree trunk. He looked for where the trunk and ground seemed driest and shuffled round. He liked being here, on the island. More often than not he would be with the other children, playing some kind of chasing or imaginary adventure game. It was good for that. There were bushes and trees and open spaces. There were pathways. You could climb, run, hide. Best of all there were no adults.
Now, sitting here alone there was a melancholy, yet he liked that too. He enjoyed being by himself. This place was peaceful.
The patch of clear sky was growing and now, at last, the rain was easing. He stood up. The back of his jumper was a bit wet from the water that had trickled down the trunk of the tree and there was a little on the upper side of his legs but generally he was dry. He dusted off the back of his shorts.
Then, from a little way off … “Lado!” It was his father. What was the time? The boy’s heart started to race. Even with the clouds clearing he could see that it had got darker. He could use the rain as an excuse – but he knew that really he had simply been daydreaming and not thought about the time. “Lado!” the call came again.
The boy could see that the land bridge was a quagmire. Shoes full of mud and water would seal his fate! He raced back into the heart of the island and down the path to the punt. Arms outstretched for balance, he “tight-roped” across and leapt down into a thicket of elder trees, bushes and brambles that separated the ditch from the field. He raced through this fringe heedless of the bramble’s attack on his legs. Another “Lado!” as he emerged into the field that sloped steeply upward in front of him. There at the top, silhouetted against the sky was his father. Why hadn’t he called back to his father to say he was coming? Too late to think now – another misdemeanour – and no point calling now since his father could see him. This slope was great for sledging down when covered in snow but running up after rain when you’re late was another matter. He arrived, panting at his father’s side.
“Do you know what time it is?”
“Your mother’s done tea … and look at your shoes.” The boy looked down. They were wet and muddy – ‘but not half as bad as they would have been if I hadn’t used the punt,’ he thought to himself. “She’ll skin you alive! Come on we gotta move.” His father’s use of the word “we” was almost conspiratorial and the boy relaxed. Before he knew it he was being hoisted aloft and swung onto his father’s shoulders. “The tea ’ll be on the table.” His father started to jog and the boy began to bounce as if on a cantering horse. The boy deliberately started to make a continuous “aaaa” sound which became, “aa – aa – aa – aa” with the jogging.
His mother was a small, nimble woman and, when he and his father came in she was busying herself putting things on the table. The boy guessed that she had not done anything much about tea till she had heard them coming – the “aa – aa – aa” and the latch of the gate. She did not “skin him alive”. If his father was not particularly angry he knew she would not be. Tea was eaten in the usual way after basic preliminaries like getting the wet stuff off, washing hands and dabbing a bit of disinfectant on a couple of the bramble scratches. There were a few questions about what he had been “up to” but adult talk between his parents soon took over and he stopped listening. He just ate his tea and thought about things.
The rest of the evening was spent like most others till his bed time. His parents might chat. He might play with toys. Sometimes his father would do some woodworking and his mother might sew or knit. The radio might be listened to. After he had got his pyjamas on his mother helped him up onto the draining board by the sink and washed his face while he sat there compliantly. He was then sent off to say his prayers and go to bed. A short while later his mother came in, tucked in the blanket and kissed him goodnight. Then his father came, ruffled his hair and also kissed him goodnight.
The man stood at the top of the field looking down the slope towards the river. How long had it been since he last stood here? A long time. There was a paved public footpath now running along the top edge of the field. It was Autumn but he pictured the field covered in snow. It had seemed such a long sledging course. Now it seemed so much smaller than he remembered. Does the world shrink as you get older? It seemed to him that it did. As his parents had got towards the end, unable to do things independently, their worlds had become very small and the things in them – things which might, in the past have been inconsequential, very big.
He started down the field then stopped. He put down the plastic bag he was carrying. It didn’t seem right that they should be carried this last little way like shopping. “For all the times you carried me it is only right I should carry you in my arms.” He spoke the words aloud, involuntarily. They just came. He was grateful there was no one around to hear him. He lifted the two dark green canisters from the bag. He didn’t need to look at the labels to know which was which. He could tell by the weight. He put them both into the crook of his left arm, picked up the bag with its remaining contents in the other hand and started down again.
The island was still a mix of trees, bushes, brambles and open spaces but the water filled ditch and the punt were no longer there. Maybe the ditch had been filled in for safety reasons when the path was put in. There would be all hell to pay if a child, out with family, charged into the innocent looking trees only to fall and be sucked down into the mud! The man walked across, onto the island at the point where he gauged the punt had once been. He wove his way to the end where he hoped the tree was still standing and there it was. Unlike other things it did not appear to have shrunk. Its branches formed the broad canopy he remembered. He walked beneath it and the ground was still dusty and void of vegetation.
He looked around and listened. There was no sign of anyone about. He set the canisters down and took an axe and a garden trowel out of the bag. The axe was to help break up the soil if it was hard rather than to sever tree roots. As it was the earth was easier to work than he had anticipated. It was only a matter of minutes until he had excavated a deep enough hole. He put the axe back in the bag and took from it a man’s silk tie and a knitted doyley. The tie had been his father’s and the doyley made by his mother. He put the tie into the hole first before undoing the canisters and slowly pouring the ash from each on top of it. When both canisters were empty he went over to the river and got a little water in each. He returned, swilled out the insides of each and poured the water into the hole. He placed the doyley on top and tucked it round before putting the soil back and treading it down to make it as flat as he could. He stood a moment in silence. Was that a prayer? He wished them, “Goodnight” and left.
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