Arthur’s Oak

Surprisingly, Arthur felt fine when he reached the bus stop. All those agonising struggles to get upstairs unaided had paid off. He smiled to himself. The staff at the Nursing Home only allowed him to do it because they thought he was in love. In love… Arthur snorted. In love with Biddy McFee..? what a joke! But with no lift, visiting her twice a day helped him to get his wobbly old legs going again. All the best athletes train and to get up the hill, he needed to build up his strength. 

He’d slipped away while the staff were hoovering and dusting. He knew when they’d finished they’d gather in the little cupboard to have a quick fag and a cup of coffee. 

‘Just taking a stroll,’ he’d called out cheerily, ‘before I go up and see Biddy.’

He’d expected a bit of fuss, but someone called, ‘Wrap up warm, dear. It’s a bit chilly outside.’ And that was it! 

When it came to haul himself up on the bus, he felt the strong hands of some heavily tattooed youth giving him a shove from behind. When he’d spotted him waiting inside the bus shelter Arthur had been a bit nervous. He looked the sort you wouldn’t want to meet in a dark alley at night but when he got off the bus, the same lad helped him down. It made him feel strangely emotional so as his helper jumped back aboard, Arthur tapped his shoulder. ‘Thanks, son.’ 

The bus moved off and Arthur stood for a moment to steady himself. He could smell rain in the air and that wind was quite chilly. Re-adjusting his scarf, he walked with deliberate steps. He was puffing a bit by the time he’d reached the pathway. His pulse quickened. Only as far as the next bend and he’d see her again. 

His thoughts drifted back to 1949. Was it really that long ago? It was still so fresh in his mind… all those long afternoon walks with Gracie.

He felt her slip beside him. He was old and slow. She was just as he remembered her on that spring day so long ago. Her shiny brown curls tossing in the breeze; her creamy and blue cotton dress curving around the contours of her slim, lithe body, her tiny feet tip-tapping beside him. 

They stopped at the bend and Arthur looked up. After all this time, the sight of the oak took his breath away. 

When his granddaughter, Sarah-Jayne was a child, her eyes would light up when Arthur told her about the Royal Oak which got its name when King Charles II hid from his enemies after the battle at Worcester.

But this one, once sacred to the god of thunder, was nameless. 

Whenever he’d set eyes on it, Arthur wished he’d been there when the tiny acorn, one of more than fifty thousand others produced by its parent that summer, had tumbled to the ground. 

In the years that followed, in a drive for supremacy of the seas, men came and felled all its companions. They looked for the mature, the strong and the durable. Three thousand or more were needed for one ship and the king wanted a whole fleet. And when they had gone, this now Monarch of the Woods was left to grow alone. 

Arthur knew about being alone. He’d never had the company of brothers and sisters. Until Gracie came along, he’d even struggled with friendships.

But the tree, protected by leaf mould, and hidden from its predators by its very position on the forest floor, was safe from trampling feet. It lay dormant throughout the winter but when the sun warmed the earth once more, the life force within began to move. First the root, then the seed leaves and finally the stem. Twenty days after the first surge of life began, a tiny shoot struggled towards the sky. It took four hundred years to become what it now was. The forces of nature toughened and ridged the oak stem into trunk and bark.

Trudging on, Arthur remembered how he’d come here on the way to school looking for the silvery trail left by slugs as they glided up and down it’s trunk looking for lichen and algae. He recaptured the thrill of holding slimy and wriggling things in his hands and best of all, the joy of keeping them in jam jars to scare the girls in class.  

Seasons came and went.

In his youth, Arthur came up here to sow his wild oats with some long forgotten girl. He’d offer his arm of protection when the quiet spring nights were shattered by the eerie scream of a vixen crying for her mate and of course, one thing led deliciously to another. 

But his memories by the oak weren’t all happy. 

There was one occasion when he’d stayed up here all night. He was just a boy when his father had been killed, shot down somewhere over the channel. His mother was distraught. Unable to bear her cries, Arthur had run all the way up to the tree. He’d sat in silence until he saw an owl swooping silently from the branches to scoop up a terrified wood mouse running along the exposed root then he’d cried like a baby.

He was out of breath now. His gasps hung in swirling clouds in the damp spring air. He stopped again and looked back. He couldn’t see her with physical eyes but Gracie was beside him. It comforted him to feel her there. The times with Gracie were the best. They would sit with their backs to the tree, her head resting on his shoulder, and watch the blue tits feasting on newly hatched caterpillars far above them. Tender, exciting moments but he never went too far with Gracie. Gracie was different. 

Arthur smiled.  ‘You loved it up here, didn’t you, Gracie, Luv.’

She didn’t answer, but he knew he was right. She especially loved the flowers. There were no flowers now. Although the season was changing, winter hadn’t lost its grip on the earth just yet. Another month and the dog violets, cosseted by the tree roots would bloom alongside the white wood anemone and in the hazel wood behind the great oak, the bluebells would be out.

He moved on. 

‘Do you remember when spring turned to summer,’ he reminded Gracie, ‘and we brought the nipper up here?’

There was a time when their son, Harry, loved being near the tree as much as he did, but not now. Since Gracie died, he hardly ever saw him. Too busy carving out a name for himself. Harry liked exercise but he wouldn’t want to come up here. He’d sooner be in the gym. Back then, he’d been as keen as mustard when they caught a glimpse of a male roe deer rubbing his scent on the trunk of the oak to mark off his territory. 

Almost at the top, Arthur stopped to catch his breath. His knees were trembling and that wind had a definite bite to it but the naked branches of the oak seemed to lure him on. Was it his fancy or was the tree beckoning? With renewed strength they set off again. He and Gracie.

At the top of the hill, he stood under the spreading arms of the oak. 

‘Hello, old friend.’ His voice was choked with emotion. 

Down there, in the Home, they’d be frantic by now. Before long, the police would be out in their cars looking for a silly old fool, who had only just recovered from a serious bout of illness, and gone walk-about. 

He shivered, but not from cold. He shouldn’t be here and yet it felt so right to be here. Up here, he was young again. Up here, Gracie sat with her back to the tree. 

He fancied he saw a dead leaf flutter down onto her dress. It reminded him of the autumn day they’d brought his little granddaughter, Sarah-Jayne, up the hill. He’d told her that before long the oak would shed a quarter of a million leaves. 

The child’s eyes had grown wide. ‘How do you know that, granddad? Did you count them?’

Arthur had chuckled then and he chuckled now. The thought of counting every single leaf…  

Something had happened that day. Something wonderful, almost magical. He’d managed to impart his love for the tree onto the girl and from then on, Sarah-Jayne loved being near the oak as much as Arthur did. 

Sarah-Jayne was the main protester when the powers-that-be wanted to fell the oak to build a trunk road. People said they couldn’t be stopped, but Sarah-Jayne stopped them. And now that she was all grown up, Sarah-Jayne moved in higher circles of influence. She’d gone to Uni, got the training and she was living a hundred miles from here working as part of a pressure group, all to do with saving the earth or some such thing.

Arthur took his gloves off and ran his fingers along the tree trunk. The backs of his hands were almost as gnarled and craggy as the tree bark. The oak would stay here for another few hundred years but he wouldn’t. Arthur was on his way. He wasn’t upset or afraid about that. He was ready to move on now.

When Sarah-Jayne found him there a couple of hours later, Arthur was sitting with his back to the trunk, his eyes fixed somewhere on the branches above. There was a smile on his lips. 

‘There’s a squirrel up yonder,’ he said as he heard Sarah-Jayne’s footfall. ‘I reckon he’s looking for the last of his winter stash.’

Sarah-Jayne crouched down beside her grandfather and together they watched until the animal disappeared into a dark crevice. 

‘How did you guess I’d be here?’ he asked.

‘I knew you would be here,’ she said. ‘That squirrel will be moving on now it’s Spring. What about you, Granddad? Are you ready to go?’ 

‘I reckon so,’ said Arthur struggling to his feet. ‘I just wanted to see the old tree one more time.’ 

‘What’s all this one more time stuff?’ Sarah-Jayne laughed. ‘You might not see it every day but a hundred miles is nothing these days. I’ll bring you back anytime you want.’

Arthur swallowed hard. Would Sarah-Jayne bring him back in the summer? Gracie always looked so beautiful in the summer. As they turned to go, he smiled down at her; so attractive with the sunlight in her hair and wearing that pretty blue flowered dress.

‘Aye,’ said Arthur slipping his arm through Sarah-Jayne’s as they began the long walk down the hill. ‘I’d like that very much, darlin’.’

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