The Old Man and the Tree
The day Jack Brand was born the topsoil moved
Aside, displaced by gentle force, nature's
Relentless strength when roots split free and taste
The goodness of the earth. The willow tree
Emerged some six yards from his future house.
The boy was strong, with sturdy arms and trunk,
A cold blue stare and willingness to fight
In schoolyards or the street. The teenage Jack
Could take a pint, wore hobnails on his feet
But missed the war. (His birthday was too late.)
The slender sapling meanwhile swayed and waved
Its kitten tails and braved the winter winds
And with the spring fresh green re-dressed its wands.
Beneath the clayey soil its spreading roots
Anchored and fed the lean and thirsty wood.
The bull-necked and be-suited Mr Brand
Could drive a car in nineteen twenty five
And travelled as a salesman selling seed.
It was a man's world, though, in certain bars
Professional ladies with their stone-eyed smiles
Were cheap, but smelt of stale cigars and gin.
There was a decent girl with perfect teeth
And eyes like Myrna Loy who could Charleston
Well and waltz. Her father was a policeman
Who sucked his pipe as Jack, with polished shoes,
Asked for her hand. In nineteen thirty four
He marched with Moseley sporting a moustache
And starched black shirt. His wife polished his belt.
The willow grew, and took strength from the soil.
Still thin, but thickening, its swaying dance
Seen from the kitchen of Brand's future house
Entranced the occupants when March winds blew,
And perching on its boughs the garden birds
Sang summer through. Striations in the bark,
Marked the unique skin like fingerprints.
Its pale charm brought to mind, somehow, moonlight
Reflected on a lake, enchanted song.
The neat suburban garden's modest scale
Was able to accommodate the tree
Despite the undulations caused by roots
In the shaded quarter of the lawn.
Throughout the Second War (too old to fight),
A comfort for our absent soldiers' wives,
Jack prospered on his travels, while at home
His son and daughter thrived on rationed food
Well-supplemented by black-market goods.
Complacent Mrs Brand at length decreed
That on cessation of hostilities
Her well-fed brood required a grander house.
Thus in nineteen forty five, the willow tree,
Though not exactly property, became
A part of Mr Brand's enlarged estate.
"My salix alba," he would proudly boast
To friends and neighbours who admired its grace,
But even as he said it some unease,
Some vague sense of resentment, unexplored,
Would creep, or seep, like weak acidic sap
Until that faint distaste showed in his face.
Lofty now, aloof with hefty boughs
And roots that nudged the path behind the house,
Its bole too thick to sway, the willow tree
As each season passed would leave detritus
On the lawn: browning, lance-like leaves and twigs,
Then catkins in the Spring. Out with his rake
The portly Mr Brand would sniff disgust
At his careless rival's shrivelling gifts.
But then one Autumn, in the fading light
He felt the chill of age, both children gone,
His ailing wife half-lame, his greying hair
Less thick and looming smugly over him
That solid mass of thriving, sappy wood
Rustling crisply in the evening wind.
A bully's first experimental nudge,
If answered with a shove, evaporates,
But when Brand accidentally grazed the bark
With a clumsy rake, impassivity
Was taken for contempt. He was nonplussed
Momentarily, then he drove the tines
Hard at the earth and if they hit a root
That was too bad!
When we moved in next door
The octogenarian widower
Nodded but turned his back and did not smile.
At length, however, ice began to melt
With pleasantries exchanged across the fence.
I praised his garden, with its moss-free lawn
And he complained about a neighbour's cat.
I said that I admired his willow tree.
He spat, which shocked me, gave me a cold stare
And spoke at length about the scourge of trees:
Their roots, which undermine his property,
The nuisance of their leaves, but most of all
The threat of death they pose on windy nights.
I, disconcerted, smiled and humoured him
And kept off the subject as our friendship grew.
Our politics were worlds apart, of course,
But I was fascinated by his life -
So different from anyone I knew -
As over beers watching TV sport
He repeated stories from a bygone world.
Then one evening as I bathed our child
I heard my wife come rushing up the stairs:
"That fascist from next door is up his tree!"
The light was fading. Clouds of grey-blue slate
Leant colour to the foreground. In the wind
The willow hissed as lambent yellow leaves
Shook free and swirled like streamers to the ground.
An aluminium ladder gleamed against
The glowing, grey-green trunk. High on a bough
Jack Brand, with silver hair, black, polished, shoes,
Suit trousers and white shirt with rolled-up sleeves
Sat legs astraddle, working with a saw.
A creamy dust was bleeding from the cut.
"Are you OK?" I called. "Need any help?"
Like a man possessed he pushed and drew and
Pushed. His face was red. He gasped and blew and
Gasped. A crack. The bough before him shuddered
Then ripped itself away. His ladders fell,
Swatted to the ground by the swinging limb.
Exhausted on the stump he dropped the saw
And slumped. "Hold on!" I cried, fearing the worst.
"The ladder's gone! Don't move." I leapt the fence
Retrieved the steps and leaned them where I could.
Climbing up to Brand past the sundered wood
I smelt and touched the willow's gaping wound.
"Squirrels," was all he said. I helped him down.
There was a smell of whisky on his breath
But in his eyes I saw a wilful boy
Who, pleased with what he'd done, could not conceal
A gleam of triumph. Yet his reluctance
To meet my eye showed some embarrassment
At having to be helped down from the scene
Of his artless crime. A tear in the clouds
Exposed a Hunter's Moon. He shook my hand,
Assured me he was fine and took his leave.
That was the last time I saw Mr Brand.
Botched prostate surgery the following week
Led to his sudden death. His house was sold,
The landscape gardeners felled the willow tree.
We moved away, but in my memory
A man with silver hair in chill moonlight
Still hacks at innocence in lonely spite.