𝗢𝗻 𝗛𝗶𝗻𝘀𝗹𝗲𝘆 𝗞𝗻𝗼𝗹𝗹
𝘣𝘺 𝘛𝘪𝘮 𝘑𝘦𝘧𝘧𝘳𝘦𝘺𝘴
The old man sat alone in a shadowy corner of the Traveller’s Rest. Though his gaze was directed towards a small framed picture hanging on the wall to the right of where he sat, it was clear to Livvie Prouse that his thoughts turned inward. Not wishing to disturb his reverie, she waited until it was almost four-thirty before crossing to his table and collecting up his plate and empty pint glass. The dinnertime rush would soon be upon them and if he wasn’t going to order anything more they would need his table to seat other customers.
“Anything else I can get for you?” she asked, brightly.
He shifted his gaze to look at her without—she thought—really seeing her, smiled, and shook his head. His short white beard, bushy white eyebrows, and the tufts of white hair above his ears made him look as if he’d been dusted with frost. The set lines of his face and his faraway gaze spoke of a lifetime of befuddlement. He gave the impression of being haunted by a question to which he’d never been able to learn the answer.
“Haven’t seen you around before,” Livvie said. “Are you new to the area? Or here on holiday?”
The old man squinted at her, as if trying to make her out through a fog. “Just visiting. I grew up here in Mells. This is the first time I’ve been back here in over sixty years.”
“Wow,” Livvie said. “The village must look very different now.”
The old man gave a little chuckle. “Not as different as you might think. There used to be a tradition here when I was a boy.”
Livvie nodded. “You mean Daffodil Day? We still have that. Every Easter Sunday. People come from all over to see it.”
“No, dear,” the old man said, shaking his head. “I’m not talking about Daffodil Day. Tell me, is that old ash tree still standing on the top of Hinsley Knoll?”
“Hinsley Knoll?” Livvie knit her brow. “You mean out past Puxton Farm? You know I think there is a tree on top of that hill. You can see it from the road if you’re driving out towards Newbury. Big old tree stood all by itself.”
The old man nodded. “When I was a boy, we had a village tradition. Every boy on his eighteenth birthday would have to walk out to Hinsley Knoll and spend a night under that old tree. You know ash trees are sometimes called the Venus of the woods?”
“No, I didn’t,” Livvie said. “And I’ve never heard of any tradition like that.”
“I suppose it died out years ago. Before you were even born.”
“What did you do out there under that tree?”
“I suppose you could call it an initiation.”
Livvie laughed. “That sounds ominous. What kind of initiation?”
The old man glanced to one side, then back at her. “Memory’s a funny thing. Sometimes you look back and you remember something, and you think: how could that have possibly happened? But the memory of it is right there. Clear as day.”
“Did something happen?”
“Maybe it did. Waterhouse, isn’t it?”
He gestured at the framed picture on the wall which he’d earlier appeared to be entranced by. It was indeed a reproduction of a painting by J.W. Waterhouse. She knew the artist because her mother was an art lover and amateur painter, with a particular fondness for the Pre-Raphaelites. The painting showed a boy, naked but for a tiger-skin loincloth sleeping in the grass on the bank of a river. A naked girl, who appeared to have emerged from the water, stood on the bank gazing at him in fascination. There was a strong suggestion that something sexual was about to occur.
“I believe it’s called a naiad,” Livvie said. “Very Victorian, isn’t it?”
“Why do you say that?” the old man said.
“It’s all about fear. Fear of the female.” Livvie gestured at the painting. “She’s a seductress, isn’t she? She’s going to steal that poor sleeping boy’s innocence. Ruin him.”
The old man stared at the painting for a long moment. “You know I never saw it that way. In my mind I imagined she was going to rescue him.”
“Rescue him? From what? His virginity?”
The old man laughed. “His ignorance.” He met Livvie’s gaze and smiled. “Guess what, young miss—today’s my birthday.”
“Is it really? Well, happy birthday.”
“I’m eighty.” The old man was silent for a few moments before he said, “You know I worked in an office for forty years. Forty years cooped up in an office with computers and telephones and photocopying machines. Stale air and cigarette smoke. Waste of a life. I should have stayed here in Mells. There’s magic here.” He looked straight at her now. “Did you know that? Real magic. I should have stayed here and become a gardener. Lived my life outdoors. I should have listened to my father.”
Though confused by this, Livvie nodded. Turning, she glanced at the clock on the wall above the bar. A quarter to five. Already there was a huddle of customers at the bar.
“Well,” she said, hoping the old man heard the prompt in her voice. “Are you sure there’s nothing else I can get for you?”
“Quite sure,” the old man said, rising to his feet. He looked behind him for his jacket.
“I have to be going. I want to visit that old ash tree one last time.” He looked at her and held her gaze for a long moment. “Then maybe I’ll know what to make of these memories. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Livvie said. Although she didn’t, of course, understand. Not one bit.
Abandoning his car in a dirt lay-by, Owen Johns entered the paddock through a gate and began walking towards Hinsley Knoll. The sun was sitting on the crest of the knoll, directly behind the ash tree so that its lower branches glowed gold and its long shadow stretched down the incline like a hand reaching out towards him. His heart beat so fast he had to stop and catch his breath. He recalled how his father had walked with him to the foot of the knoll on the evening of his eighteenth birthday. On the way his father had stopped and looked sadly at a newly-cleared section of Botten Wood.
“Cutting down trees,” his father said. “I hear they’re going to build a hotel here. First this section, then the rest of the wood. And these trees have stood here for hundreds of years, until now.”
As they walked on along the road, his father spoke again, “You know what I saw in the war, son? I saw a lot of men who’d forgotten their place in the world. Bombs and guns and tanks and planes. All the miracles of modern warfare. Made by men who’d forgotten how to look at the leaf of a tree and be awed by it, to see the beauty of it, the intelligence. Do you understand?”
“Yes,” Owen had replied, though he hadn’t been sure he understood at all. One of his great loves at the time had been the Saturday matinees at the Odeon in Newbury. There he’d watched The Dam Busters, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The Enemy Below, and many other films that had made war seem exciting, a great adventure; and he’d often lain in bed at night imagining it was him, not Michael Redgrave or William Holden, who was leading a troupe of men in a battle against the Germans.
On they’d walked through the silent summer evening. Owen could remember seeing a starling murmuration dipping and rising in the sky over the paddock, and when he’d pointed and said, “Look, Dad!” his father had smiled and patted him on the back.
Arriving at the foot of Hinsley Knoll, his father had halted and gently urged him onwards, his expression an odd mixture of pride and concern. “Go on, son.” Then his father had turned around and begun walking back towards the road, limping on his right leg, from which he’d had a piece of shrapnel removed during the war. His last words to Owen, said over his shoulder, were: “Your mother will say a prayer for you tonight.”
So Owen had climbed the hill, just as he was doing now, although then it had been with bounding steps, not slow painful ones. And, like now, the sun had been low in the sky so that he had felt its soft rays on his skin, the grass was full of that peculiar honeyed light, and the ash tree’s long shadow made a dark path for him to follow. Standing at the top of the knoll, he had looked over the surrounding view of fields and woods and farmhouses and church spires as if he were looking out on all the possibilities the world offered to him. Now he dragged a weight of experience up that slope, though none—not one—as vivid, as fresh in his memory, as perplexing to him, as thrilling, as what he’d experienced under that ash tree on his eighteenth birthday.
When he made it to the top of the slope he stopped and stared at the ash tree. He would not approach it. Not yet. From where he stood, he could see the cankers, fissures, and vine-like protrusions on the trunk which he couldn’t prevent his mind from composing into the shapes of figures. As a boy he’d seen female forms and had run his hand over the truck, cupping a gnarly fist-like node as if it was a ripe young breast and running his hand along the smooth surface of a branch and imagining it as an outstretched thigh. At that time in his life, his experiences of the opposite sex had been confined to the time his school friends had dared him to kiss Jilly Hammond, and he had gone with her into the spinney of trees behind the school where she had closed her soft hot mouth over his and pushed her hips against him with a display of knowledge he’d not expected and which had left him dizzied. Then there was the time he’d seen a woman swimming naked in Hawksby pond early one warm Sunday morning when his mother had sent him to buy eggs from Puxton Farm. He had noticed the flash of her white body in the water as he picked out a shortcut through the trees surrounding the pond. Then for a few minutes he had crouched and watched, until she turned her head in his direction—alerted, he thought, by the sound of his laboured breathing—and he’d leapt to his feet and ran.
Those moments with Jilly, and the memory of the woman’s slim, white form sliding through the water of the pond, had replayed over and over in his mind for almost a year afterwards, a blush rising to his cheeks, and his cock—his little chap, as his mother had always referred to it when he was a child—thickening every time he thought about them. He’d thought about them again that evening of his eighteenth birthday as he ran his palms over the ash tree’s trunks, imagining he touched entwined female forms instead of the twisted trunk of an ancient tree. And then when he’d lifted his eyes to an oval knot in the bark suggestive of the shape of a head, he had given a cry and staggered backwards, having been confronted with a pair of flashing eyes.
This was the point where he began to doubt his memories of that evening. No matter how hard he tried to recall what had actually happened to him sixty-four years ago, what he saw in his mind’s eye were those eyes. Those eyes suddenly looking out at him from the bark of the tree, and then… then… something shifting, slowly at first, and moving forward as if breaking out, breaking free, from the trunk. He had drawn further back, gasping. Then all at once figures surrounded him, peeling out from behind the tree and quickly encircling him.
He could remember what he had felt at first: terror. Genuine fear.
The sun had begun to sink behind the low hills along the horizon by that point, and the lower half of the sky was full of yellow and orange light. Half silhouetted against the sky, the figures joined hands to form a circle that enclosed Owen and the ash tree. They were women, all naked except for patches of moss on their skin, which he saw contained tiny white flowers. Branches and ferns were caught and tangled in their hair, the branches sticking out from their heads like a multitude of reindeer horns. Their skin was white with a silvery sheen, and the flat, dimensional plains of their faces and bodies gave them a look of figures carved from wood, as if they would be solid to the touch. They laughed as they danced in a circle around him, pressing inwards and forcing him to back-up against the trunk of the ash tree.
Eighty years old and standing once more on the top of Hinsley Knoll, Owen could not recall what he’d been doing as these strange figures danced around him. He might have been sobbing and screaming for his mother. He might have been watching the circling figures in awe. What he did remember is that all at once they had stopped dancing and had begun to cluster in around him. Bright inquisitive faces. Smiling mouths. Exploring hands. Taking hold of his arms, they had drawn him in among them, cooing and offering their breasts to his lips, their bodies to his open hands. He was surprised to find their flesh soft and pliant not hard like wood. He was no longer afraid. A strange peace had come over him, a sense of surrender. He moved his fingers in the patches of soft moss on their skin. Moisture oozed out of it when he pressed his palm against it, sometimes tiny scuttling insects. The women’s busy hands removed his clothes and laid him out in the grass. He had been startled to realise that their ministrations had left him fully aroused; his little chap large and agonisingly swollen, like something that had sprouted suddenly out of his body, like the flowers filmed with time-lapse photography in a film he’d recently watched: Walt Disney’s Secrets of Life; flowers that budded and blossomed in a matter of seconds. One by one the women—if indeed that’s what they were, these creatures—straddled him. One would straddle and take him into her hot, pulsating flesh, while her sisters stroked, or ran fingers through his hair, or put the tips of his own fingers to their mouths to suck and nibble, making his cock leap anew, and it crossed his mind that they might not stop there, that they meant to devour him. Then one of the others would become eager and laugh as she gently pushed the one straddling him aside and took her place. It was like a game. And all the while he lay powerless, swooning, a lad of eighteen years, who had never touched a woman before, whilst they each took a turn until steadily a cry mounted inside him, he jerked his hips upwards, and stars exploded in his mind.
When he came to his senses he was alone, it was fully dark and the night sky was laid out above him, its endless dark seeming now, as he gazed at it, full of mystery and fathomless depth. As if to force some order on it, he made himself name the constellations: Ursa Major, Orion, Ursa Minor, Aquila… one after another he named them until a low wind moved over the crest over the hill, goosebumps flashed along his arms, and he shivered.
Picking himself up, he had looked around for his clothes. They were scattered wildly across the slope of the hill. His trousers he found in the branches of the ash tree, high up so that he had to climb to retrieve them.
For the rest of the night he sat shivering on the slope of the hill with his knees tucked against his chest and his arms wrapped around himself. The moon was full and bright, and he found that he could not take his eyes off it. For the first time in his life he saw it for what it was: a dead rock, a dusty pebble, caught in the orbit of a world that teemed with life.
This, as it turned out, had been his life’s great adventure. If only he had known it then. Like a fool, he’d thought there were many, many adventures to come. And though he had known sex, known women, indeed had even briefly been married, never again had he felt so free, so serene, so powerless in the presence of a female… so at one with the world. He had felt his heart beat with the thrum of insects under the earth, with the dip and rise of bird murmurations, with the ache of the trees, with the blink of stars. Everything, everything, connected.
When he’d returned home early the following morning, though his mother had given him a cautionary glance and his father had patted him on the back, nobody questioned him. And he had known instinctively that he shouldn’t speak about what happened to him on the top of Hinsley Knoll. The experience was his alone. His secret to keep. And though he had thought about it often for a time, and sometimes dreamed of it, eventually it had faded to the back of his mind so that the next time he recalled it clearly, years later, he no longer believed it. For how could something so strange, so extraordinary, be true? There had to be some other explanation. Perhaps women from the village had painted their bodies and bound branches in their hair, rolled themselves in moss and soil, then met him there on that hill to initiate him into the world of sex? Some archaic tradition. Over and over he had asked himself: Could that be it?
Approaching the ash tree, he sat down at its foot, with his back against the trunk. He wished he could see them again, those strange beguiling creatures, whatever they were. Not touch them or hold them—no. He could not expect such privilege again. Just see them. That was all he wanted. To know that they were real. And to know that he’d experienced real magic at least once in his eighty years.
Resting his head against the trunk of the tree, he closed his eyes. The day’s last sunrays warmed his cheeks. He savoured the warmth.
And imagined he heard footsteps in the grass, and soft female laughter.
It rained through the whole of the first week in September, and it was quiet in the Traveller’s Rest. Even the usual lunch and dinnertime crowds were mostly absent. Resting on the bar in an idle moment, Livvie Prouse saw a local newspaper nestled among some leaflets and picked it up. Idly, she began to flick through the pages until a headline caught her attention.
MELLS MAN FOUND DEAD ON HINSLEY KNOLL.
She scanned the accompanying article.
…body found on Hinsley Knoll…
…man born in Mells…
…returned to the area after living in London for over fifty years…
…believed to have died of natural causes…
…police unable to trace next of kin…
“Oh my God.”
Livvie suddenly felt close to tears. Could this be the old man she’d spoken to the previous week, the one who’d said he was going to visit the ash tree on the top of Hinsley Knoll? The one who’d said it was his birthday? Had he died up there, all alone? Had he gone up there to die? Was that what he’d been trying to tell her? And she was so concerned with getting him to leave to free up the table he occupied.
That poor man.
Taking a deep breath, she closed the newspaper and set it back among the leaflets. Resting her chin in one hand, she listened to the spatter of rain on the windows and watched water surged down the glass panel set in the pub’s doors. The light falling in through the door panels cast long, wavering shadows across the tiles on the floor. And, for a short while, Livvie watched them dance. ✦