‘And many strokes, though with a litte axe,
Hew down and fell the hardest-timber’d oak.’
William Shakespeare (King Henry VI, part III. Act II, scene I)
The tree transcended its setting of small cut out gardens and fences, bungalows and barking dogs. Towering over the landscape, its arthritic limbs reached over street names and human boundaries. Nobody knew how long it had stood there: it was beyond living memory.
The Oak had survived the deforestation of Henry VIII’s battle against the incoming tide of denouncement; its wood had built ships, and castles to shelter an arrogant king. A sapling then, it had escaped the woodcutter’s axe: survived the elegant encroachment of the eighteenth century; two world wars and the relentless urbanisation of the twenty-first. Its roots went deeper than the Victorian sewers; its moisture came from so deep underground that they tapped on the doors of the underworld itself.
“That bloody tree has got to go,” Colin said, staring at the Oak.
Hazel ignored her husband and continued her task of setting out a table and chairs for the end of term supper. Colin watched her moving like an ant on a track, gradually completing her task of transforming their back garden into an outdoor bistro.
“I don’t know why you’re bothering with a tablecloth. The birds will only crap on it,” tried Colin again, determined to needle his wife.
“Colin can you get the door? Geoffrey’s here.”
A flurry of kisses and clinking of wine bottles heralded the arrival of Colin’s oldest friend and fellow lecturer from the college along with his newly upgraded wife, Susan.
“Oh, what a beautiful garden … I just love your shrubbery – you could almost imagine you were in the country, not the town,” Susan sighed.
“Yes, it hides the neighbours and their quaint little allotments nicely. Red?” asked Colin, brandishing a bottle.
“Yes, thanks … and what an incredible tree – is it yours? Oh no, I see it’s in your neighbour’s garden. It’s so tall – it almost looks unreal.”
“Don’t mention the tree to Colin.” Geoffrey warned, joining the conversation. “He gets positively rabid on the subject.”
“You make me sound deranged,” protested Colin. “Having a tree of that size in this type of environment is bloody ridiculous. It’s a danger. I have repeatedly warned the council that I will hold them personally responsible for any damage to our conservatory.”
“Why the council?” Susan interrupted. “Just have a chat with your neighbour about cutting it down.”
Hazel laughed. “I’m afraid that would be a bit much for our neighbour. He’s getting on a bit. No, the council are involved because it’s a council house.”
“Oh! You mean social housing. What, in this area? How ridiculous!”
“Susan!” warned her husband.
Colin glared at Susan. “Oaks have preservation orders on them. You can’t touch them,” he gesticulated. Blood red wine leapt out of his glass and pooled onto the soft meadow grass, causing him to stalk back to the house for fresh supplies.
“Hazel, you’ve created a pastoral haven … so very peaceful,” said Geoffrey. “I’ve been looking forward to this along with the end of term. So stressful with all the cutbacks. Nobody knows if their positions are safe anymore.”
Arthur moved slowly around his garden. Now in his seventies, he was finding it hard to keep up the effort required to grow a few fruit and veg. The weeds almost seemed to spring up behind him, as he hoed the border of dahlias. The oak tree rustled softly above him, the wind filtered through the thousands of small, tough leaves hiding the bright green, iron shells of its future offspring. He listened to the laughter next door and wished his own wife was still alive. He thought he could see her sometimes, moving around the garden or washing up through the kitchen window, but her image was just a memory. She wouldn’t have liked the new neighbours, “Not our type,” she would have said. Arthur moved along the row of broad beans, picking off black-fly and nipping out the tips.
She had been so in awe of this home when the council had given them the keys. All the family had come round to help them move in. Jenny and her mother had scrubbed the place from top to bottom – inside and out, although it was newly built. Curtains had been run up and hoisted like flags at the sparkling windows; bright primrose yellow the kitchen ones had been. Furniture had all been second hand, but it didn’t matter to them; it was their first and only home together and it had been a happy one. Arthur’s friend, John appeared in his line of vision, shattering the past, bringing back the glaring reality of the hot August afternoon.
“You all right there? You look like you seen a ghost!” called John, lumbering up the path. “You hoe those dahlias any more and there won’t be none left to impress the ladies.”
“What would I want with ladies at my age,” grumbled Arthur, masking his pleasure at seeing his old friend. “Hope those are a nice couple of bottles in that bag you’re carrying or you’ve wasted a journey.”
“Only the best for us, Arthur!”
“Well bring them here and we’ll sit under the tree and enjoy the day.” Arthur bustled around his friend, seating him on the old wooden bench under the oak tree.
His friend groaned as he sat down, “Reckon this bench is as old as that tree. Time you got a new one.”
“This un’s fit for purpose.”
“Aye and so’s that tree. Heat would bake your brains away today,” sighed John, settling into the shade of the oak with pleasure.
As Autumn whispered through the treetop canopy, the oak responded, pushing away its leaves in slow drifts and flurries; sending them slowly down to earth to cover the gardens, sheds and roof tops, transforming the landscape as it pulled on a warming coat of golden brown to prepare for the coming winter chill.
Colin surveyed his garden; the crisp crunch of the leaves underfoot like potato chips didn’t register as he looked balefully at the big tree. Hazel watched her husband through the window, dreading the annual drama of picking up the thousands of leaves and acorns. Pressing her face against the glass, she stared at a landscape that had been transformed into an autumnal painting. She wondered how their elderly neighbour coped with such a large amount of leaves. He looked as bent and twisted as the tree. Her reverie was broken by Colin’s car reversing too quickly out of the drive. Colin had said that he was going to the local DIY supercentre to find some tools to deal with the tree. She hadn’t been paying much attention; Colin’s loss of his position at the F.E. College was taking its toll. The whole music department had been closed. Government cutbacks had little tolerance for the arts and Colin was unlikely to find another position. Turning from the window, she sat down to finish a pile of marking, trying to blot out the insidious fear of losing their home.
Arthur gazed at the blanket of leaves on his borders. It would shelter the plants and creatures against winter’s icy fingers, help them to survive into the next year. He swept a few leaves into the corner of his garden to let them break down and re-join the soil. His only real concern was to clear the paths, as he knew they would become slick and slippery when the rains came. He hoped he would still be here then.
The housing estate manager from the council ran a practised eye over the outside of the house. It was three bedroomed with a huge back garden, typical of the old 1940s build. She currently had a waiting list of over 1,000 families with a three-bedroom requirement: families living in small flats sharing rooms with little chance of ever living in a property with a garden. The current occupant had been here for over sixty years. She had received a complaint from a neighbour in one of the large, private, neighbouring detached houses. If I could convince him to move into one of the newly built, council sheltered accommodation units it would solve at least one family’s housing horror, Sharon mused as she knocked on the front door. Mr. Jones plainly couldn’t be expected to keep up a house with a garden of this size. It should have children running around it, kicking a ball and climbing that huge tree.
“Mr Jones?” Sharon asked brightly, as Arthur slowly opened the front door. “I’m from the council housing dept. Can I come in?”
Arthur led the way into a small, cramped kitchen. Faded yellow curtains hung limply, framing the small window overlooking the garden. A solitary plate with utensils stood draining on a well scoured butler sink.
“Mr. Jones, as I’m sure you can appreciate, the council has to investigate all complaints and this particular one is about a very strong smell coming from your back garden.”
“Its manure. For the vegetable plot. Now’s the time to spread it for next year’s crop. Done this every year. Never had no complaints before. Smell don’t stay long. Worms break it down.”
“There’s also another matter of the oak tree and the damage that it’s doing to property. The leaves are also causing a nuisance. ”
“It’s a tree. ’Course it has leaves. Tree’s been here longer than any of us.”
“Yes, I’m sure it has, but we have to consider the views of others. It must be hard for you to manage such a big garden on your own with such a big house. The council has some lovely new sheltered retirement flats near the town. Perhaps you might want to consider exchanging this house for a much smaller, newer property. You could buy your vegetables from Tesco’s instead of having to grow them!”
“Trees been here longer than any of us,” repeated Arthur. “It’s preserved. You can’t touch it. Oaks have preservation orders. You ask back at the council,” said Arthur, looking down at the scratched linoleum floor, waiting for her to leave.
“If there are further complaints, I will have to take this matter further,” Sharon warned placing a glossy brochure entitled “Elysian Fields” on the scarred kitchen table.
As Sharon closed the door behind her, Arthur stared at the shiny offering, illustrating pink-cheeked elderly residents encased in secure high-backed armchairs, smiling inanely into a middle distance. He put the brochure on the compost heap.
“Bloody council!” exploded Colin. “They won’t do a thing about that ghastly tree. They won’t lift the preservation order. Never mind about our property. No, that’s not important compared to a common bloody oak tree.”
“Colin! You didn’t complain to the council, did you?” exclaimed Hazel.
“I certainly did. That tree should be taken down. It’s a dinosaur and a danger.”
“But this letter said that you’ve made a complaint about our neighbour next door. Just how is he being a nuisance?”
“Well the stink – obviously. Some type of manure he’s been spreading. This is the twenty-first century, for God’s sake. Nobody grows their own food anymore. Except our neighbour, like some peasant from a Hardy novel.”
“He does that every year, but you’re not normally here to notice it.”
“Thanks for reminding me that I no longer have a job,” interrupted Colin. “Perhaps you’d like me to start growing some of our food or perhaps keep chickens, like a rustic?”
“Why not, Colin? It might keep you occupied,” retorted Hazel, leaving the room before she lost her temper. She had to get to her first class, teaching Key Skills at the local Community Centre. It was her income that was currently paying the mortgage and she didn’t know how long they could manage without Colin’s salary. He wasn’t even looking for a job, she realised. He was too busy occupying himself with his grievance against the college, the government and the rest of the world.
Colin waited until Hazel’s car had disappeared before unloading his new tools from the back of his car. The DIY warehouse had been a revelation to Colin, with all that was contained within its monolithic structure. Its bright orange light glowed like a beacon in the sullen English sky as it towered above the grey estates and the grey arterial tracks that led to its door. He had found row after row of tools for cutting, chopping and controlling nature. Colin chose a large chainsaw. Soft hands cradled the powerful weapon. The light reflected down on rows of metallic teeth hungry to bite, mark and scar.
He had decided to start with one of the overhanging branches – taking the tree down slowly – weakening its structure. What could the council do after the fact, mused Colin. They could hardly glue it back. I can always claim it was an accident.
The roar of the machine shattered the morning, sending birds flying for safety, as the whir and whine of metal cutting through wood pitched to a scream. Colin panted as he severed the first branch, showers of wood dust and smoke mingled with his laboured breathing, as he watched the branch crash to the ground.
“What you doing to that tree?” shouted an angry voice. “Stop that now!”
Colin ignored the old man from next door and decided to tackle another overhanging branch. He fired up the chainsaw again, and watched in satisfaction as its teeth bit hungrily into the grey, reptilian hide. White wounds began to appear under the relentless motion of the mechanical weapon, sending showers of wooden powder to the earth below. Colin felt his ladder move and looked down to see the old man leaning over the fence to shake the bottom rungs. The chainsaw slipped, dislodged from the half severed limb and bit angrily into the tree’s core.
“Get your hands off of my ladder, you old nuisance!” Colin yelled, shaken, as he tried to control the chainsaw.
“You get your hands off that tree. You’ve no right to do that,” Arthur shouted back. “Tree’s got rights to be there. Call the police, I will.”
Colin’s face was red with rage and exertion as he pulled himself and the saw down the ladder. “How dare you! How dare you speak to me like that?” Colin was almost apoplectic as he looked down at his elderly neighbour.
“You could have killed me shaking the ladder. If there’s any calling of the police it’ll be me who does it. You’re a council tenant! You don’t even own that property! I despise people like you.” Colin spat the words like a cobra striking its prey.
Arthur looked at the slightly overweight middle-aged man holding onto the chainsaw with hands that were shaking with rage and unaccustomed exertion. His skin had the institutionalised pallor of decades spent in a classroom: his glasses were flecked with wood dust.
“Yes.” Arthur nodded. “Yes, I expect you do.” He turned away and left Colin standing alone next to the tree.
The storm that came up that night hadn’t been predicted by the Meteorological Service. All their computers and spreadsheets had not concluded that such a weather front, of such ferocity, would move in so swiftly and with such a vengeance that it would tear the roofs off houses, throw boats out of harbours and uproot trees. It was a miracle they said that it happened at night.
Hazel gazed at the smashed glass and twisted PVC frame pierced by the jagged oak branch. She took some comfort from the fact that Colin wouldn’t have been aware of the branch crushing him. It happened so fast: a retributory crack as the wind howled across the land. He wouldn’t have suffered. His life insurance policy would pay off the mortgage. Colin wouldn’t have wanted her to lose the house…
An empty wine bottle stood by what remained of the conservatory.
Jayne Geary asserts the moral right to be identified as the author of this work