The Oak Tree
Chapter 16 The Oak Tree
All day the tarmac had absorbed all that the sun could throw at it, without complaint and with a certain degree of bravado. Now, however, it was surrendering that heat having reached saturation point and that heat, in fact the heat from four hot days ,rose to meet her. It sapped what energy she had as she dawdled her way home. The blue and red 94B bus had dropped her off at the main road, just by the T junction has it had done for most of her life. With the passing years the bus had got quieter, sleeker, more modern but the number and colours had stayed reassuringly the same. It was the miracle of change with everything staying the same. There was comfort in this for her.
Now was mid August with virtually no traffic on the little country lane come road. This road and the young woman had history for she use to walk the same tarmac when returning from school. Now it was returning her from her third year at university, this road that was so familiar she counted it has a close friend and would often tell it her problems, her wishes and fears.
“He was no good, no get up and go, no sodding good.” she said aloud to the hot tarmac. On her feet where thin slip- ons which transmitted the thermals almost with amplification to her feet. Her legs were bare and she could feel the heat rising to meet her , the thin cotton dress, short as it was did not appear to keep her cool. On her back was a back pack beloved of travellers everywhere and behind she towed a small airport suitcase on wheels with its extended handle bent due to misfortune. Its wheels made a squeaking noise which she ignored.
“Fuck him” she said to the road and wondered how she could explain her unexpected arrival back at the farm she called home.
Her misfortune was to be the daughter of an alcoholic whilst her good fortune was to have an aunt and uncle who were decent ,hard working and who owned a farm. They had raised her from the age of 5. Her mother died when she was 12. Having been away at university for
3 years she now realised what value the stability of this home had meant. She knew she owed them so much.
Now she was returning with her tail between her legs, so to speak, having to admit a failure in her first serious relationship. Finding a partner she decided was going to be tough, so many mistakes to make, so much deception, so much to learn.
With an effort she caste all these thoughts to one side and raised her head to look for the landmark which always brought joy to her heart. And there it was not far off, the Old Oak Tree,
jutting out slightly in a bit of land unclaimed for centuries forcing the road to swerve around it. A heat haze from the road made it shimmer and dance in her vision. Less than fifty feet beyond was the turning to her Uncles farm so this tree had real meaning.
‘Nearly home’ she thought.
Her pace picked up a tad with the prospect of journeys end when she noticed a shape at the bottom of the tree trunk. The distance was too great for her to make out the detail but like a minor bruise on an old friend’s face she knew it should not be there.
Drawing closer she could make out the shape of a person, slumped against the tree with the head down, a strange hat, cross between a sombrero and trilby covered the face. The body had a dirty two piece suit with the legs stretched out in front as if separate from the body. At the side of the man, for now she was sure the figure was male, was a bag, like a tool bag brown in colour, old and battered. On this his hand rested with a metal tube held like a cigar between his fingers.
Coincidently, she thought this tube pointed directly at her. Stooping she tried to see his face and when low enough was surprised at the age shown there. The face was lined with worry, quite pale, with a goatee beard which looked white and dirty. The eyes which she could not see clearly appeared to be closed.
The man held is other hand on his abdomen and what shocked her was the hands were that of a younger man in stark contrast to the face. Taking another step forward she was about to speak
then a deep voice said bluntly,
“Any closer and I will kill you.”
“I...I me..an you no harm.” she stammered taking one precautionary step backwards.
That voice she decided was not the voice of an old man and yet there was something odd about it. Rapidly her mind searched the sounds for a hidden ingredient, like a herb lost in a finely blended risotto that she could not place.
There was silence except for the breeze in conversation with the tree, she waiting for the next move while he appeared content to let things be. During this stand- off she realised the missing ingredient was pain. ‘This man is in pain’ she said to herself.
“Are you in pain?” she enquired no longer prepared to stand in front of him like a statue.
Ignoring the question he came back with,
“Who are you and what do you want.?” Again he did not look up or move a muscle. The voice was firm, not in the least old.
“I live here.” she began
“What , in the this tree?” he cut in.
“No silly, ” she retorted, picking up the baton and decided to run with it, “in the hedgerow behind the tree of course.”
A broad grin crept across his face.
“You are intelligent and quite plucky.” he said in a more relaxed tone.
“That track just there “, she pointed to an opening some 10 metres away, that leads to my Uncle’s
farm I live with them.”
There was a pause then she pushed the only button she had “In what way are you hurt?”
“My, My” he growled the words out slowly, “Did they give you a name when you were born ?” he
asked at last.
“They did and because they wanted a boy they called me Max, short for Maxine.”
“And Maxine, are you squeamish?”
“I grew up on a farm for God’s sake, you do not survive long on a farm if you are squeamish.”
“Very well ” he said raising the hand that rested on his abdomen.
Her first impulse was to say something meaningless, “Like oh my God, ” but she got hold of herself,
“knife or gunshot?” she asked trying her best to sound calm as well as adult.
“Gunshot” came the reply, “low calibre revolver, damaged my second liver.”
“Do you mean you have had a liver transplant or have two livers.?” she quizzed him twirling a finger in mid air which she often did when mystified while thinking how bizarre.
“I have two livers and this one his bleeding internally.”
“OK” she said reaching slowly to her backpack for the ubiquitous mobile phone, deciding the man was becoming delirious.
“I can climb the tree to get a signal, and call an ambulance or I can run to the farm.” she gave him a choice.
“You mean you can get a signal up the tree.?” Now for the first time the man raised his head to look directly at her. His face was heavily lined while the neat small eyes showed gripping pain. She answered smartly.
“Yep, don’t ask me why, but this is a dead spot for mobiles but I discovered years ago if you go
quite away up the tree you can get a signal.”
As if he had been given a shot of something powerful, like hope, he thrashed his hand in the grass producing a metal grey box the size of cigarette packet with a red light on it.
“Local knowledge, can’t beat it. ” He said adding “No ambulance ” he stressed this holding out the box, “but can you take this up the tree until it the changes colour then punch the number 4341 into it. That’s all. Please?” he was imploring her.
“No ambulance?” she said with an air of incredulity.
“Definitely no ambulance, you would put yourself and the crew of the ambulance in immense danger, believe you me.”
The warning seemed genuine , not exaggerated, delivered in voice devoid of drama, so she nodded her head slowly.
“Ok but no looking up my dress.”
He laughed, a ‘could not give a dam’ kind of laugh.
For many years she had been able to scamper up this tree as fast as a squirrel being chased by a
fox, but now she took it slowly since her bare legs felt the harshness of the bark and she tried to make out what she was carrying in her hand. It had no weight, was superbly manufactured like her mobile phone with shiny smooth surfaces.
“Wonder what it does?” she thought to herself.
When she reached her favourite bow, sitting with her legs dangling free, she looked down at the stranger just making out his head resting on his chest like when she first found him. Now without his hat he looked small and vulnerable.
“You oK?” she shouted.
He raised a hand then shouted “anything?“.
“No” she replied and thought she heard a pitiful groan from below or was it the breeze.
The leaves around her rustled that delicious timeless sound of an old oak, with the cooler air wrapping itself around her legs. She felt perfectly at home taking in the view along the lane, at peace with the world, so much so her recent troubles appeared a long way back in her rear view mirror.
Lifting the device to her head she waved it in front of her, fixing her eyes on the little light.
Suddenly, without any warning the whole contraption turned inky black with a strip of light circulating on the outer rim, like those lights found on advertising hoardings on tall buildings. It took her so much by surprise she was lucky not to drop it for she fumbled it only
catching it on its decent with her free hand.
“Got something!” she screamed, “the who bloody thing has changed colour.”
“Punch in the numbers” he sounded far more animated now as if life was flooding back in his veins.
“What numbers I can only see strange hieroglyphics, like in ancient Egypt.”
“Shit” came the reply “Sorry, sorry” he said, “swearing achieves nothing.”
Adding “Look for a stick man.”
Sure enough she found a stick man, “Got it.” she bellowed.
Press it, that is 4 in your tongue.
” Look for a rising sun.”
“Yes -pressed it. “She felt more confident
“and the stick man again.”
“Yes done, what next?”
“Look for a rear dogs leg,”
There was long pause then with some glee she cried,” Found it and pressed it.”
“No ” she said somewhat quietly almost to herself then “YES!, YES!”
The box had changed back to its original colour and the little light was blue.
Relaying this to the old man, she heard a cry of delight then,
“come down and patch me up.“,
Back on the ground she handed him the box which he tossed casually into the grass showing no
further interest in it.
“What does it do?” She asked looking at her legs which were a little scratched and had brown marks on them. As if he was not there she lifted her dress to look at her thigh which had a dark friction mark, “I don’t remember doing that.” she casually observed.
“Great legs.” he said.
“That is sexist, you would be in a great deal of trouble saying that at uni.”
“Beauty should always be admired where ever and whatever. Now stop admiring yourself and fire me with my last monoclastic regeneration bullet.”
As he said this he opened the old bag by his side producing what looked like a glass miniature gun. Then he gave her a tube that looked like the tube her uncle used for sterilising his dentures.
She held both in her hands.
“Open the tube remove the bullet and place it in the gun.”
The bullet turned out to be the size of large white tablet only shaped like a rugby ball with black
tips. Opening the end of the little gun she inserted the tablet into it.
“Now what?” she said filled with curiosity and eager to see what came next.
He lifted his shirt to expose a small round bloody hole with a blue aurora.
His instruction was simple, “Put the nozzle to the wound and press the button.”
However, button in question was tiny . So tiny she had difficulty until pressing it with her little finger. There followed a puff of air as if expelled from a child followed by a scream of pure agony from her patient.
“Sorry ,sorry, sorry.” she said with total conviction for she deeply regretted the pain she had
inflicted with this little device.
“No” said her patient after some time, “it is normal. The device is meant for combat personnel, to
patch them up until they can get proper attention or fight on to the end.”
‘So he is military.’ she thought.
“How does it work,” she sat beside him now like a daughter willing to learn from her parent,
convinced it was a more like a bedtime story, fiction in other words.
“It releases microbes into the wound which seek out damaged cells and repairs them with artificial structures called nakes.”
“So you will be as good as new soon, then?” She asked thinking this is nonesense.
“I wish, the nakes are temporary after 4 hours or so the artificial structures break down under the attack from the immune system. But..”
he paused has if contemplating something horrible. “in fours hours I will be leaving this world one way or another..”
She crossed her legs, put her hands behind her head and asked the number one question in her
“Are you married?”
Her patient spluttered in sheer surprise.
He read her like a book, “You mean you want to know how I got this.”
“Guess I do, just thought I would put you off guard then ask you that.
“Su..re.” he let the word escape into the world slowly.
They sat there , neither speaking, hidden from the August sun by the shade of the oak tree. She felt a calmness, a oneness with her environment, totally at home which surprised her, given she was sitting with a man with a hole in his gut. The idea of an ambulance crept into her mind but she dismissed it, for somehow it did not appear appropriate.
Gradually as the calm silence grew between them, or rather upon them, she thought the man had an indescribable tranquillity of re-assurance about him. If he said he did not need an ambulance then he most probably did not. At last he spoke and what he requested shook her out of her calm placid mood.
“Help me remove my face and I will tell you how this mishap befell me.”
“REMOVE your face!?” she echoed with astonishment.