The axes, saws and chains came that autumn. I was only 82 years old then. They cleared the land to build the house, removing the woodland around me with indecent haste. The sounds of the crashing branches as they felled my family haunt me still. Then, they stopped, and left me, a lone specimen marking the boundary between the lawned garden and the landscape beyond.
I miss my siblings. I miss the competition to see who could grow tall enough to touch the sky and the feel of our roots mingling in the Kentish sandy soil. I learned to listen to the song of the trees from far away across the downs; the low undertones of the oaks and the sweet murmurings of the willows.
First I heard chatter and laughter from the house, then it came from the terrace getting closer each day. Suddenly he was by my side, tilting his curious face up towards my crown. ‘I am six’ he announced, ‘how old are you?’ Unexpectedly he wrapped his arms as far as they would reach around my trunk, pressing himself close against my mottled trunk. Taking care to mark the furthest spot with his fingertips he circled around me, repeating this manoeuvre three more times to measure my full circumference. Then he ran off, zigzagging across the lawn.
No human had ever touched me before. I was accustomed to the squirrels scittering along my branches and the fluttering finches stealing my papery seeds, but this was exquisitely different. Over the next few days the boy returned, exploring my pleated leaves and delicately investigating my twisted bark.
‘Stanley Michael Edward Dunmore! You come back here this very instant!’ the female in a long black skirt and lacey shirt shouted from the terrace. That was the first time he climbed up along my branches, pressing his back securely against my trunk. He stifled his giggling laugh so as not to give his location away. They could not find him, it was as if he had just disappeared.
He was lying in a deckchair on the lawn, his arms folded, with a book shading his eyes from the ardent sun. He had grown into a tall, thin sapling, his hair now darkened to sandy brown. In the stillness of summer we both dozed and breathed deeply the shimmering air.
I had seen many winters but few felt as bleak as this, after days of ceaseless rain, the temperature dropped, bringing fitful snow flurries. He stood at the window, watching, waiting. We heard the men marching up the lane on their way to the docks We felt their boots stomping the ground like a pulse ebbing away.
We were so proud of him dressed in his uniform. His sister took photographs on the lawn. He stood tall and let my shadow rest gentle across his shoulder.
On those few precious days when he was home on leave, he would go out early and walk for hours; trying to muster peaceful sleep through exhaustion. I wanted to cradle him on my beams and hide him, but most days he would just pass me by. Finally, on that last morning, he climbed up into my branches once more. His khaki green drab amongst my fresh furled leaves. I knew he would look for my fellow hornbeams in France and that their familiar shape would give him comfort and protection if they could. He pulled a button from his tunic and placed it in the crook one of my branches.
The sounds of the guns grew louder from across the water and the murmurs of the petrified trees retreated as they were shattered and scattered by the artillery.
After the telegram boy cycled away, I could hear the heartbreak spilling through the open terrace doors. It flowed across the lawn and down into my roots. I lashed my branches, whipping them around, flinging my accusations through the air towards the hornbeams of Delville Wood. The sighs came back on the wind like sobbing waves, ‘We fell, they fell. We fell, they fell.’
They could not find him. It was as if he had just disappeared.
She was a curious looking creature in flared trousers and a knitted waistcoat. She ran through the low gate at the edge of the lawn, letting it slap shut behind her. She hardly paused before reaching up to my lower branches, wedging her plimsoled feet against my trunk and pulling herself up. When she planted her small hands on my rough bark, I knew she would be the one. She settled high enough to be hidden from view under my crisp canopy.
I could hear her Grandmother calling to her from the terrace. The girl found the button as she was climbing down. ‘Look Granny. Look what I found.’ The old woman peered at the blackened disc in the child’s hand. She recognised the insignia.
‘That belonged to my brother. The soldier in the photographs. He was lost, at Delville Wood, on the Somme. ’
When she grew up, the little girl kept the promise I heard her make to her Granny that day; to find the boy who had first climbed the tree and mark his resting place. I knew that the naked trees had fallen in on him, as I had begged them to, protecting his lifeless body from further desecration by the relentless shells, but I never dreamed that it would take so long for them to find him.
She told me the military had replanted Delville Wood, as a sacred monument, but, she confided, not with hornbeams.
My roots mingle with the new trees that have grown up all around me. I am 200 years old now. I will not grow much taller, but at noon my shadow rests on the empty terrace and my branches can almost touch the sky.
I loved how the passage of time is recounted by the ancient tree, and how the pain of war and loss is described. The gentle voice seems to embody the great structure of the tree, an observant witness of the personal interludes of history, with characters that are visible and believable to the reader. A haunting and delicate piece.Catherine McNamara
Time, place and change emerge as key themes through the anchoring image and point of view of the tree. A family epic in micro.Adam Lowe