I sit beside the ford on a crumbling wall, unlace my shoes, and fold my jumper. It’s a ritual, doing these things in order, the way we always did. The promise we’d get a little place by the coast one day never happened, so we’d come here instead to paddle and wiggle our tired toes in the sand and gravel. I tug at a sock, and my fingernail catches Annie’s darning. I swallow back an ache in my throat, but there’s no sense feeling sorry for myself. I should be grateful for all the good times.
I make my way up the lane between high hedges of flowering hawthorn. I don’t see a soul for half a mile; only the twinkling of windscreens on the distant M6 and the midday chimes of St. Chad’s remind me others exist. I duck out of the sunlight and into a glade, a cool, damp space beneath beech, oak, and hornbeam. I draw in the sweetness of the woods and remember.
We’d all sit up here for hours, little more than kids, poking the fire and sipping homemade beer and forgotten Christmas liqueurs. We’d stare at the embers till the wee hours, shivering while telling stories. One of those nights I looked up from the drifting sparks, and she was smiling at me. She’d moved here a few weeks ago. I didn’t know her name. She’d brought advocaat from her sideboard, and it made Penny Groves retch. I knew I was staring, so I tried to focus on the stars, and she came and sat beside me and gave names to them. The next day, I didn’t think she’d show, but Annie was there at the bus stop like she’d said. We went for burgers and milkshakes.
I close my eyes and run my fingertips over the trunk. I know where to find it. I trace the green, gritty mold, the roughness of the bark, and the cuts made decades before by pen knives, and blades. And there we are:
ANNIE + TOM
Others have scratched crude hearts and “tru luv” and “always,” the initials stretched by the tree’s growth. I could’ve taken a photo for her, but a screensaver or print would steal the magic. Instead, I peel a wisp of bark where it’s frayed at the edge, where we’d cut that timeless message almost five decades ago. I put the bark in my pocket.
Annie has been at Twelvetrees for six years. She can no longer respond to or remember me. I sit her in the window, and she fixes her gaze beyond the marsh and railway line and onto the ridge of trees where our names were cut. I take the wisp of bark from my pocket and open her fingers, placing it in her palm. She holds our moment in her hand. There’s no blink or twinge of her lips, but I know she feels it, soft as a kiss, in her palm.
Poignant and sad. Good buildup.
This is so amazingly beautiful Richard. I have seen too many such encounters and they rest heavily, but lovingly on my soul.
Great expression of the emotions caught in conflict. Someone has been lost, but is still there. The bark of the tree is hope of some remembrance.