“I’ve decided to plant Oakes.”
“What?” I peel my face off the section of the Sunday papers I’ve fallen asleep on. Bill, down the phone, tugging at my apron strings.
“Did you get my message?”
“No. I was just drifting off.”
“Oh sorry. Didn’t mean to wake you.” His politeness always takes me by surprise. “I wondered if you wanted to come too…it’s a beautiful evening.”
He needs me. I’m tired.
“I’ll pick you up?”
“OK.” I can’t summon my usual enthusiasm. That which seemed in unending supply when I was at my most enthralled.
“If you don’t want to it’s fine.” He takes rejection like a spear to the chest. It’s almost impossible to say no to Bill.
“Of course, I’ll come.”
Weariness hangs heavy throughout my body. The drinking from last night has left me with a tight chest. But my devotion reckons on an immediate response when I’m summoned.
Shortly after he’s at my door. I follow him out to the truck. Oakes is in the back, strapped between two bungees and once we get underway wobbles with each twist in the road.
We park on the lane and trudge up the long shallow steps to the top of the hill. A marginal fringe of spectators watch the sun sinking in a haze beyond the city.
Bill sets about finding a location for Oakes with earnest concentration. Various spots are considered and rejected. Somewhere with plenty of sun; nowhere with too much bramble; not on the incline of the hill; nowhere too exposed. The opportune patch is eventually found on the edge of the glade, below the woods.
I sit on the grass with the beer he’s given me while he drops to his knees and starts digging. The charisma I’d originally fallen for is growing dimmer in the recesses of my memory. The wide smile left in a pub garden on a sunny June day. The record player, guitars and amps put into storage. The lease of the house gone to a desirable new family. Fresh coat of paint for the nicotine stained walls.
I imagine I might be able to squirm free of his grip. There he is, bent double, skinny boyish limbs jutting out at all angles, feverishly scraping at the earth.
It isn’t long before the handle from his feeble hand trowel breaks off so he has to use the blunted spade end. I don’t have the stomach to watch him.
I turn my gaze down the hill.
“I feel like a caveman with a primitive tool. Sorry…I should have dug the hole first and then come to get you.”
My presence doesn’t make any sense. Why am I watching this? What am I supposed to do? Am I just here to cut a red ribbon and later share in lines of coke? I don’t know what to say. Small talk has never been appropriate. I stay quiet.
Down the hill two women and their kids have surfaced from the woods with a dog. They begin picking blackberries. They pay no attention to us though I can’t help but feel conscious of Bill’s strange digging.
“Mummy, does he like blackberries?” one of the kids chirrups presenting a flattened palm of berries to the dog’s nose.
“No. He doesn’t darling.”
They forage awhile before disappearing up the pathway to the look-out point.
“I’m getting bitten.” I tell Bill, scratching manically at my thigh.
“Have a smoke. It’ll keep the midges off.”
But I don’t feel like smoking.
Dusk has set in. I’m chilly. I hope he won’t take much longer. But the line of coke he has suggested back at his eviscerated family home isn’t tempting either.
“What if he’s allergic to the clay?”
“He won’t be. Look at all the others. They’re fine.”
For Bill, loving an inanimate object is easy. He’s understood its needs and adhered to them, having reared the dwarfed oak tree from an acorn, watering it every day until finally, a year later, a sprout appeared. Ten years since and planting the juvenile tree looks to me like the last step towards Bill’s fate as redundant father.
“He’s my oldest son, you know.” He casts his eyes up to the surrounding ancestral oaks. “I want him to outlive me. Outlive me by hundreds of years.”
The hole is big enough now and Bill lifts the tree out the Sainsbury’s bag and embeds it, patting the surrounding earth. He lights another cigarette and starts watering. Systematically rotating the tree, he rubs its leaves with water from his palm. The tenderness disarms me.
He tells me he has spent hours talking to the tree. I am certain it knows a lot more about Bill than I do. It has absorbed his melancholia without judgement.
“There.” He says standing back, hands on hips.
A plane crosses the sky overhead and then stillness.
I look up at Bill and see that his eyes are filled with tears which don’t fall but swim around his eyeballs.
“I couldn’t have done this without you.”
I stand up and he takes my hand, draws me to him and holds me close.
“Let’s go back now and do a line to send Oakes on his way.”
In Bill’s world, a line is the ceremonial swing of incense. It’s the punctuation that comes between despair, adventure, boredom, relief. Life.
So I find myself among the boxes of Bill’s packed up kitchen. Outside, in the small patio garden, is Oakes’s smashed ceramic pot, the black earth scattered around the fragments. As if Oakes had hatched himself and walked on roots to find his own kind.
“To my eldest son,” Bill says, inhaling deeply and hoovering up a fat line.
Outside the darkness is setting in.
“I came back at 2am and talked to him for an hour. It was during that thunderstorm and the meadow was a bog. I skidded over in the mud. Had to throw my trainers away.”
This he would later tell me.
A man brought to madness, ruin at
I understood then about Bill. About his inability to love freely, with vulnerability. His inescapable fears, doubtless seeded from the cult that dominated his school years. He could only love the things that would never leave him. Inanimate things that would sit passively and listen. His children, attached via his blood and worshipful still, though I knew they would come to recognise his flaws in time. His relentless self-obsession and complete inability to emphasise.
He loved Oaks more than me.
You don’t quite feel like you’re alone with all that going on. You feel like you’re being watched.
It’s a bird building a nest.
Are you alright?
It’s ridiculous. Feeling this sentimental about a plant.
I don’t want to plant him anywhere that might get developed.
But they can’t develop this. It’s a nature reserve.