Thursday, 22 December 2011

The Hawthorn Tree

by Adam Macqueen
Christmas 2011

Downsizing. That’s what we told people. It was the quickest, and the easiest way to explain what we were doing. Because then it sounds like something admirable, it sounds like a lifestyle choice, like something they have programmes on Channel 4 about, rather than what it really was, which was something a lot messier and more confusing that I’m not sure either of us could have found the right words for even if we’d wanted to. “Ooh, you are lucky,” more than one person told me. “We dream of doing something like that.” I just smiled, and something about the way I smiled seemed usually to make them tell me how brave I was too.

But it didn’t feel like downsizing. Not when we stood at the back door and looked at the vast expanse of green hill behind us, and beyond that the big sky. A proper sky, stretching all the way from east to west without a single building to block the view, and one that was filled with stars at night time. I don’t think the girls had ever seen the stars properly. You don’t, living in London. I remember saying to Ben that it felt like we were living life on a whole different scale.

Of course it wasn’t perfect – the survey said we would need a new roof sooner rather than later, and there were a couple of windows at the front that were rotten through and needed replacing straight away, but the estate agent put us on to a local builder who got them done before we even moved in and didn’t charge that much more than we’d have expected to pay in town. And it was a shame the garden was north-facing. The hill that had seemed to cradle the cottage protectively when we came to view it in the summer turned out to overshadow it in the winter, blocking every scrap of sun from the raggedy garden that trailed up its slope – but Ben was still convinced he could do something with it. I don’t know where his confidence came from – it wasn’t as if he’d ever done much in the way of gardening before, but somehow that was part and parcel of the new start.

He had such big ideas. When he hacked all the brambles back he found the original wall, a dry-stone one, all tumbled down and coated with moss, and he was convinced he was going to rebuild it, even though there didn’t seem any point because there was nothing behind the garden but the hill and the worst thing that was going to come in was likely to be a sheep or maybe a lost rambler. But he joined the local library with the girls and came back with a book about dry stone walling to go with all the ones about growing vegetables. He did at least agree that that was a job to put off till next year, if he was going to stand any chance of getting any veg sewn in time for the spring.

At least it kept him busy. The idea was that he was going to pick up locum work while I commuted, but between the end of August when we moved in and the end of November I don’t think he got more than four or five days in all. A lot of the surgeries he contacted said they were waiting for their settlements under the new system and they might be able to give him more in the new financial year, but that wasn’t much use in the meantime. I know it got him down, but I didn’t want to push it in case he took it as criticism. We were alright for a while anyway. Our friends back in London wouldn’t believe us when we told them how small our mortgage payments were.

Still, at least it meant Ben was around while the girls were getting settled in their new school in the village, which I have to say they took to like ducks to water. They seemed to have their little group of friends and invitations round to play in place within days, and they were soon arriving back with new enthusiasms like riding lessons or keeping chickens that would never have crossed their minds in a million years if we’d stayed where we were. It was amazing to think they would grow up as countryside kids, and barely remember the years they spent living in the city when they were older.

I was finding the commute just about manageable, though having to get up even earlier to de-ice the car in the mornings as the year wore on started to do my head in. Even then, though, being able to look up and see the sun just beginning to peek up over the brow of the hill and set the frost on the peak shimmering – or just a pink glow in the fog that hung around the summit some mornings – well, it made it almost worthwhile. Thankfully Ben was happy to sort out the kids on the weekend mornings, and let me lie in and then enjoy a long bath and a lazy morning. I always had grand plans for us to go on days out and long walks exploring the area, but somehow with the days drawing in we never quite managed it. We’d never even got as far as the top of the hill behind our house. Someone at the village shop had told me it was an old fort and there were bronze age burial mounds up there, and that the views from the top were breathtaking. “Don’t worry,” Ben told me one Sunday night when I was moaning to him about how we weren’t taking advantage of things for the sake of the girls. “We’ve got years to explore. We’re not going anywhere.”

You see, that’s the way we’d been talking. Not all the time, but regularly, about the future: whether it was his seed catalogues, or locum work picking up in the spring, or getting a dog which was the girls’ latest obsession. All things that meant he was planning to be around for a long time. That’s what I couldn’t convince the police about. Because of course once they’d found out about the affair, and the fact I’d given him two options, either moving out here or splitting up – well, you could tell by their faces that they’d made their mind up exactly what had happened and there was no point them wasting their time looking for someone who didn’t want to be found.

And I considered that too, don’t get me wrong. I spent ages going over every conversation we’d had since we moved, any signs I might have missed that he was having second thoughts or he’d made the wrong decision. I even phoned Her. That was probably a mistake, especially after having most of a bottle of wine to pluck up the courage, but it was clear from her voice that she hadn’t been in touch with her and she didn’t have any idea where he was. She kept saying “missing? What do you mean missing?”, as if there was any way of explaining it better. And at the end she even asked me to let her know if I had any news. I told her not to hold her breath.

I’m getting ahead of myself. It happened on a Saturday morning, when I’d slept in even later than usual. The girls were sat in front of the TV when I went down, with their cereal bowls still sat empty on the carpet next to them, and when I looked out of the sitting room window he was there in the garden digging away at the base of the hawthorn tree he’d got it into his head was shading the place where he wanted his rhubarb to be. He’d been worrying away at it for days, cutting back all the branches and burning them on a damp smoky bonfire too close to the house and nicking his hands on the thorns because he couldn’t be bothered to wear the perfectly good set of gloves he’d bought. I thought about shouting out of the back door to see if he wanted a cup of tea, but in the end I didn’t bother, just made a herbal one for myself in the big cup and took it back up to the bathroom for a wallow.

The bathroom’s my favourite room in the house. It’s tiny, and built in under the eaves, but they managed to fit in a proper cast iron bath tub with the lion legs – I think it’s proper Victorian – that you can stretch right out in, and we treated ourselves to fluffy new towels the girls aren’t allowed to use as a moving in present, so my Saturday morning bath is a proper treat. There’s no window, just a skylight, so you can lie in there looking straight up at the sky and the clouds passing across above you and keep topping yourself up with hot water and just let everything ebb away.

I’d been there half an hour or more – I remember I was reading one of the colour supplements, not that day’s because we hadn’t been to the shop yet, but I never get a chance to read the papers on the right day anyway – when I heard Ben talking to someone in the back garden. I couldn’t hear what he was saying, and I thought one of the girls must be out there with him, but a couple of minutes later I heard the sound of the back door opening – and felt it too, because it sent a gust of cold air zooming up the stairs and made me duck down to get as much of myself under the warm water as I could. I heard him telling the girls that he had to go out and to be good and for Maisie to look after her little sister and both of them to look after mum. And then he was gone.

“Ben!” I yelled down the stairs, but he’d shut the door behind him. “Ben?”

He wasn’t coming back. He had his coat and boots on already, so he had no need to. I sat up in the bath, sending water tsunami-ing up over the edges and on to the cork tiles we were planning to change when we got round to it.

“Ben?” I was bellowing now.

“He’s gone out,” called an uninterested Maisie up the stairs.

“Gone out where?” I shouted back down. No answer. The village was a ten-minute drive, and the nearest neighbours weren’t much closer, not that we knew them anyway. There was nothing out the back except for the hill.

I got up in the bath and wrapped a towel round me, managing to dip the corner in the water which made me swear even more. To see anything lower than the very peak of the hill I had to open the skylight, which involved getting out of the bath and slopping even more water all over the place. I could feel myself goosepimpling even before I got the window open and let the November air in to meet my wet hair.

I couldn’t see Ben anywhere. There was his spade, stucking up from the earth by the hawthorn tree up by the back wall – he’d made some serious inroads: the ground around it was all dug away and there was a fresh gash in the trunk where the pale flesh shone brightly out from the mossy bark. There were the black ridges where he had planted his onions and spinach and lambs lettuce, with precious little to show for them save for the labels marking the ends of the rows, and the rainbow spinning windmill Beth had insisted on buying from the garden centre even though there was nothing worth scaring the birds away from yet. But there was no sign of my husband. I looked up the hillside beyond, still striped and contoured with frost. The sheep had all been taken in for the winter. And for all the woman at the shop said about the views, we’d never seen anyone walking up there.

I leaned out of the skylight as far as I dared to look to the east and the west. There was nothing but grass and stones all the way to the arching horizon, and nothing but cold grey sky above. The winter sun had barely crested the brow of the hill, and for a moment when I squinted up into its brightness I thought I saw the silhouettes of figures up there, but when I blinked they were gone.

When I got downstairs, still damp, the girls were just where I left them in front of the television and showing no interest in the whereabouts of their father. I pulled on wellies under my dressing gown and walked all the way to the top of the garden shouting Ben’s name – thinking all the time how embarrassed I would be if he should pop up from somewhere and introduce whatever stranger he’d been talking to with me in that state – but there was no reply but the wind. When I went back in to the cottage I had to switch the TV off to get the girls to even look at me. “Who was in the garden with daddy?” I asked them both, but Beth just shook her head dumbly and Maisie, when pushed, insisted she thought he’d been talking to me. I don’t think they’d even looked round from the screen all morning.

So we waited. Or at least I waited, and tried not to let the girls think that anything was wrong, and when it got as late as I could possibly let it get and still make it to the supermarket – which he knew perfectly well was what we were supposed to be doing that day – I packed them both into the car and drove there and forced myself to go up and down every aisle checking off every single thing on the list while convincing myself he would be waiting, full of apologies, when we got home. But we arrived back to a empty house, dark and cold, with my note still sitting in the middle of the kitchen table. And that’s when I decided to call the police.

Well, you know the next bit. I tried as hard as I could to keep things normal for the girls, but obviously there was nothing normal about their dad not being there and there was nothing I could do to deny it. Every night when I put her to bed Beth asked if her daddy would be there in the morning. Maisie stopped talking about him at all. I think she thought it would upset me. I tried to tell her it wouldn’t, but we both knew she was right. Sometimes I’d find her sitting just staring out of the back window of their bedroom, even a couple of times at night long after I thought they were both asleep and there was nothing but pitch blackness on the other side of the glass.

What did I feel? Mostly angry. I was embarrassed about having to rely on people I hardly knew to help me pick up the kids from school and look after them until I could get home in the evening, brilliant as their friends’ parents were about rallying round. I was angry about the fact that I had to pack both them into the car and take them with me on a 20 mile round trip if we needed anything from the shop, or an even longer one if one of them had a play date or a music lesson. I was angry about being left to cope with it all on my own. I didn’t sign up for this, I kept saying to myself. I’d put some serious consideration into life as a single parent just a few months before – I’d made lists of the pros and cons and left them out where he could find them so he would realise just how serious a situation we were in – but that had been in London with my friends and my whole support network around me. Not out here in the arse end of nowhere where you had to spend half an hour scraping ice off the car before you could even get anywhere.

The police didn’t start taking it seriously until a fortnight had passed and his bank card and mobile hadn’t been used (I’d told them he’d left his phone sitting charging on the kitchen dresser and even showed it to them, but they said there were still procedures they had to follow). I’d been complaining to Beth’s teacher how they didn’t seem to be doing anything and then the very next day on the way to school we drove past a line of policemen picking their way through the copse near the junction with the main road and a man in a frogman suit stepping down into the black pond beneath the trees, and it all hit home to me what was really happening. I managed to keep things together until I’d dropped the girls off but I’d hardly got the car out of sight around the corner in the lane before I had to pull over and spent five minutes dry heaving into the hedge.

I was saved by the nice lady from the village, the same one who’d told me about the history of the hill in fact. She stopped alongside me, took one look at me and put me in her 4x4 and back to her kitchen where she made me a strong coffee and insisted I have a tot of whiskey in it, and then she sat down on the other side of the table and told me to tell her all about it. Well, it all ended up coming out, about the affair and why we’d moved here and how worried I was about what it was all doing to the kids and how terrified I was about what had happened to Ben – all to this woman I barely knew, in fact I’d only found out her name, Vivienne, that morning – and she just kept handing me tissues and patting my arm, and her dog kept licking my other hand like she was trying to comfort me too and by the end of it I felt better than I had in weeks.

It was funny because she couldn’t have been less like my mum – Vivienne’s country through and through, all gilets and Barbour jackets and sensible boots, and her kitchen was the sort mum used to be really snobby about with quarry tiles and an Aga and all these bunches of different herbs, some of which I didn’t even recognise, drying above it, but right at that moment it felt like just where I needed to be and I’ve never felt more cared for.

When I’d let it all out she just sat there watching me stroke the dog, and she looked like she was coming to a decision, and then she told me to follow her through to her utility room which turned out to be rigged out with a whelping pen in it and twelve boisterous Springer Spaniel puppies that set up a yapping as soon as we opened the door and started jumping up at us for attention. Vivienne picked out one – a gorgeous boy with a patch over one eye and a tail going ten to the dozen – and handed him over to me. She told me that she’d heard in the village how my girls had been pushing us for a dog and she thought he might be exactly what we needed right now. And she wouldn’t take any money for him, although she did say I could pay her for the sack of food and the bowls and blanket she gave me as well and she’d pass it on to the RSPCA.

Well, that sort of restored my faith in humanity and gave me something to go on for. You can imagine how delighted the girls were when I brought them home and introduced him to them and told them that yes, we were keeping him. And from that day on life felt a bit more manageable and less like we were living on hold, waiting for Ben to walk back in through the back door. And Kipper – Maisie let Beth name him, which was really good of her – kept us busy, and cheerful for each other, even when the police liaison officer came to tell me they were stopping their search of the local area in favour of “secondary investigation techniques” which as far as I could tell meant just waiting to see if Ben turned up.

Maisie’s friend Sarah’s parents – it seems ridiculous calling them that, Angela and Julian – were brilliant too, having the girls for the day when I had to go into town and look through the unidentified persons records with the liaison officer to see if Ben was in there because they knew how upsetting I would find it. They got back at 4 o’clock absolutely delighted because Angela had taken the three of them out pony-trekking all up along the ridge. “We saw our house and we saw you in the garden, and we waved but you didn’t see us!” Beth told me, which was confusing because I’d been at the police station all morning, but Angela just shook her head and told her they had been a very long way away. Apparently they had planned to go all the way to the top of the hill and take a photo of themselves with the cottage in the background but Fidget, Sarah’s pony, had gone all skittish so they’d turned back before they’d got there, and to be honest it seemed like they’d had quite enough excitement for one day. They both went up to bed straight after tea and were out like lights, although Maisie murmured something weird as I was kissing her goodnight, asking who the man was that I had been with in the garden and saying she was wishing for it to be daddy even though she knew it didn’t look like him.

I was determined to make Christmas as normal as possible for them, too. The one thing Vivienne had insisted on was that Kipper shouldn’t be a Christmas present – a dog is for life, etc. – so I’d got them both a Wii between them as their big present and plenty of other stuff for their stockings and we’d bought daddy a Top Gear book – it was Maisie’s idea – and wrapped it up and we had a nice moment putting it on the mantelpiece for him “ready for when he comes back.” After breakfast I let them plug in their new toy and I got on with the dinner. I even checked Ben’s veg patch to see if there was anything I could salvage for us to have with the turkey, but it was all looking pretty barren. I’d probably failed to do all sorts of things I was supposed to like watering and fertilising, what with everything. To be honest I think it was the first time anyone had been anywhere near that end of the garden since he disappeared. Even Kipper tends to skulk round the back of the house to do his wees and poos where we’re most likely to tread in them. I think he doesn’t like the cold, the big wuss. The few times I tried to persuade him up to the back of the garden to use the nice clear patch of earth around the stump of the hawthorn tree, he started whining and half-throttling himself trying to pull off his collar so he could run back into the house. And I know this makes me a terrible dog owner but it was too cold to persist for too long.

The first Wii argument kicked in after about an hour, and by that time the dinner was at a point where it could look after itself, so I announced that we were all going out for a walk. There was the usual shrieking and wailing at that, but I silenced that with a reminder of the promises they had made when we got Kipper and we eventually all managed to get ourselves togged out in coats, scarves, hats, mittens and wellies without too much fuss.

To be honest I didn’t blame them when we got out into the weather. It was a grey Christmas not a white one, with the mist hanging heavy in the valley, but I was fired up by now and I said that rather than go up the lane as usual we were going to walk up the hill. I had the idea that we would get above the fog and see those beautiful views that Vivienne had talked about – we might even meet her up there, she said she was often up there with her boys, as she called them – but in fact as we trudged up the footpath with the girls discussing their new favourite Mario characters and Kipper doing his best to both strangle himself and trip me up with the lead – it seemed to get even thicker. The footpath was slippy with mud. Beth had a couple of near misses that left her grizzling, and Kipper nearly had me flat on my face a couple of times, so after a bit I decided we should just strike out across the grass – as long as we were going upwards, we knew we were going in the right direction, after all. The hedgerow soon faded away behind us, and then it was just us trudging across grass stiff and cracky with frost, just the four of us, three girls and a dog on our own in a world of white. The girls had stopped talking to save their breath for climbing, and even Kipper seemed to quieten down and settle close to my side in a way that made me think maybe we were getting somewhere with his training after all. He had his ears pressed back hard against his head and he kept darting these quick glances around him. Maybe he could sense rabbits out there in the fog.

The hill was higher than it looked. I kept thinking we must be getting close to the top, because the gradient would change, but then we would suddenly reach an even steeper bit, and I realised this must be the fort that Vivienne had been talking about. I wished I’d thought to bring a flask out with us, because the air was so cold up here it felt sharp in the back of your throat, and I was surprised the girls weren’t complaining more, but they seemed to have been struck by the same mood as the dog, just huddling into their coats and peering around themselves at the blankness. It felt like everything – not just us, but the fog and the hill and the whole countryside around us – was waiting.

Finally we reached a point where the ground flattened out, and I announced that we had reached the top, although I could see the vague shape of an even higher bit of ground jutting out ahead of us. I had thought to put a couple of mince pies into the pocket of my fleece as a reward, and I was just reaching them out and trying to disentangle the kitchen roll I’d wrapped them in with my glove still on when Kipper took fright at something – I saw the hackles bristle up all along his little back, and he let out a low growling noise I’d never heard him make before – and then somehow he’d managed to slip the loop of the lead off my wrist and streak off into the whiteness before I could do anything.

Maisie gave a scream. I was shouting his name too, but the racket we were making somehow seemed to dissipate into the mist around us. Beth slipped a little, mittened hand into mine, and when I saw her frightened side eyes looking up at me I tried to give it a reassuring squeeze but my heart was thumping away in my chest and the bloody dog was nowhere to be seen anywhere.

I told them both to hush so we could all listen for where he was, and then we could all hear him rushing about somewhere, letting out these funny little excited yaps and whimpers. But the strange thing was that none of us could agree on where the noises were coming from. I thought he was somewhere on the far side of the hill; Maisie swore blind he had doubled round behind us, and when I asked Beth all she did was stretch out a shaking arm to point ahead at the place where, now my eyes were getting used to it, there was definitely a higher outcrop rising up out of the mist. Somehow it seemed better to be moving in some direction than none at all, so I took both their hands firmly in mine and we started to walk that way.

Christmas is funny, isn’t it. The memories you have of Christmas as a kid stick with you forever. My Mum and Dad used to have a cocktail party on Christmas Eve, which was all glamour and lipsticky kisses from aunties in sequins, and grown up snacks like cornichons and strange-smelling drinks left half-finished in sticky glasses in the candlelight. And then the next morning after I’d opened my stocking I would always creep down to the living room, turn the volume down low and slide in the VHS tape to watch the whole of the The Railway Children on my own before they emerged around lunchtime to make a start on the Bloody Marys. Every year the same, an ecstatic mix of joy and tears and the wonderful familiarity of knowing exactly what comes next.

And it was only at that moment that I realised what had been nagging at the back of my mind ever since we started off up the hill and into the whiteness. That moment when the fog began to clear and I saw what we were walking towards and stopped dead in my wellies on the close-cropped, wiry hill-top grass, a cold numbness spreading through my body. The moment that Maisie slipped her gloved hand out of mine and hurtled away from me, her little sister stumbling after her as fast as her short legs would carry her, out of my grasp and out of my reach and into the white that closed around both of them…

Daddy, my Daddy!