Treading upon fallen acorns, thirty people are gathered around a tree. The air is crisp and golden; breathing it is like biting into an apple. Bystanders watch curiously as banners are waved and placards raised.
A television crew arrives from the local station. Spurred on, the group leader raises a megaphone to his lips and shouts, ‘Save King Bill! Preserve don’t kill!’
Immediately, the others join in, a chorus of indignant voices. They become noisier once the cameraman is focused on the group. Someone pounds a bass drum in time to the chant. Steady and solemn, the thump could be the tree’s heartbeat.
The news reporter stands in front of them. ‘This English oak tree, nicknamed King Billy, is estimated to be more than four hundred years old,’ she says loudly to the camera. ‘The council has sold part of the land. Under proposals submitted by the developer and approved by the council, this ancient tree, and others along the park boundary, will be cut down, making way for a drive-through coffee shop.’
While she explains the situation further and interviews some of the protesters, a truck drives up, as if on cue. The contractor has arrived to cut down the tree. Two men jump down from the cab. Hesitantly they approach the crowd, intending to assess the situation before bringing out the necessary equipment.
‘Save King Bill!’ Several people cry, blocking the way.
The men look at each other and shrug. They appear to be unsurprised. Climbing back into the truck, they switch the radio on and start to eat lunch, flicking through newspapers propped against the dashboard. Under instruction to wait as long as necessary, they resign themselves to a day of nothing.
The bystanders have multiplied. A little girl watches the scene in bewilderment. ‘Daddy, why is the tree called that?’
‘I don’t know, sweetheart,’ her father replies, swinging her on to his shoulders for a better view. ‘Nobody remembers. It happened such a long time ago.’
‘He looks like a king,’ she decides. ‘The top of him is all gold, like a crown.’
A spokesperson from an environmental charity is now addressing the camera, holding the reporter’s microphone. ‘The English Oak, or Quercus robur, is one of the nation’s best loved trees. It can live for over a thousand years and is a vital habitat for many animals…’
Swathed in bunting and banners, the oak surveys the landscape. Many changes have occurred during its four centuries of existence. The activists, the bystanders, the television crew, the charity representative, the contractor: all are insects going busily about their short lives. Generations are born and pass away while the oak grows and spreads slowly, steadily. Eventually there will be no more acorns. The trunk may split and hollow out. Yet it continues to weather the storm.
‘I wonder if trees have memories,’ someone says whimsically. ‘They’ve seen so much history. Just imagine what they could tell us!’
Oak leaves shiver in the breeze. The tree remembers.
‘Lady Eliza Montague! Get yourself down from there at once!’ A woman is struggling across the grass, three children in tow. She reaches the tree and rests against the trunk while she catches her breath. The children giggle and wave at a slim figure partially concealed in the canopy. One moment later, a pair of slippered feet and the hem of a gown descend.
‘I am sorry, Nurse,’ says the young woman, as she drops lightly to the ground.
‘And so you should be!’ Nurse blusters. ‘How many times have I told you? Climbing trees is not becoming in a lady. It is undignified. And you are all of eighteen years and soon to be married! Tis time to put an end to these childish sports.’
Eliza stares moodily at her feet, bowing her head. Leaves and pollen decorate her hair. A beetle is crawling down the neck of her bodice.
‘And look at the state of you,’ Nurse tuts. ‘Tidy yourself before dinner, or the Earl will be most displeased. Come along, children.’ She grasps the hands of the two younger girls and marches back to the manor house without a backward glance.
The other sibling, a boy, begins to follow. Changing his mind, he returns to Eliza.
‘I used to like climbing trees,’ he says, stroking the bark wistfully. ‘But I am too much occupied with my studies, these days.’
Eliza stamps her foot. ‘Henry, you are only thirteen years old! There is plenty of time to play.’
‘Soon I shall be a man,’ her brother says. ‘I shall take my rightful place in the world.’ Heir to the estate, his family’s expectations are already burdening his mind. Frowning, he contemplates the tree. Yellow catkins stir in the evening breeze. How quiet it is. But then, it is always quiet.
Reluctant to go, and seeing that Eliza has no reply, Henry casts around for another subject. ‘Do you know, we have won the war against the French? A treaty was signed in Paris. Father told me.’
‘Father never tells me anything,’ she mutters. ‘Except whom to marry.’
Henry pretends to ignore this. ‘We are to keep the provinces of Canada, but the island of Guadeloupe will be given back to the French.’
‘I suppose that makes no difference to the slaves,’ Eliza bursts out. ‘One master is much the same as another. That is why I never take sugar in my tea!’
They both fall silent. Often they have debated the issues of slavery, of colonial rule, of the constant war against neighbouring countries in the struggle for land and resources. Henry always finds excuses to justify human suffering, siding with the majority opinion. He and Eliza never agree on these matters, but still she cannot resist making her views heard. However, she has learned to hold her tongue. Prolonging an argument only increases her anger. And as Nurse would say, anger is unladylike.
In the distance, deer are grazing. The oak casts a long, spreading shadow upon the grass. Already a century old, the tree has stood in the manor grounds since it was a sapling. Like a face gradually ageing, wrinkles have appeared on the bark over time. Roots have strengthened, lifting the ground. Beginning to shiver, but averse to going indoors, Eliza crouches down. Arms wrapped around herself, she closes her eyes and listens to the comforting whisper of the leaves. Pretending that nothing else exists. Only her ears, listening, and the tree, rustling.
Awkwardly, Henry clears his throat. ‘Are you coming to dinner, sister?’
Eliza sighs, leaning further back against the trunk. ‘By and by. I wish to spend time alone with William first.’
‘Father will be angry if you are late,’ warns Henry, before walking back to the manor. Eliza opens her eyes and watches his receding figure.
‘Oh William,’ she says. ‘There are so many sad things in this world, which I am powerless to put right.’
Leaves whisper. Catkins quiver.
‘You know, Doctor Gordon was here yesterday, because everybody thinks my behaviour strange lately. His opinion is that I suffer from melancholy. I could have told him that. Rarely do I eat. Sleep will not come. I do not remember what happiness is.’
A beetle runs across her slipper.
‘I have no friend to confide in, apart from you, William. In two weeks, I am due to be married. There is no choice in the matter. Perhaps I will love my husband, perhaps not. But all I see ahead is entrapment. A horse and cart travelling along a single road, with no turnings. Trotting blindly into doom.’
She tries to picture herself as a dutiful wife, a devoted mother, a capable household manager and a successful hostess. These are the roles assigned to her, but she can only see a figure in a gown, impersonal and faceless. Her future lies with the centenarian oak she has known all her life. Not with the suitably high-ranking bridegroom chosen for her by Father. All she wants is to sit upon a welcoming bough forever. Through storms and sunshine, frost and fair weather.
Suddenly she springs to her feet. ‘Never will I leave you. They cannot separate us.’ She presses her mouth to the rough bark. As the sun begins to set, she sprints towards the manor house. Reaching the entrance, she turns for a glimpse of the tree outlined blackly against the rosy sky. She waves. The leafy branches wave back.
Next day, a misty rain is falling. Eliza runs across the park. She wears a nightgown and her feet are bare. No droplets have settled in her loose hair. Expertly climbing the tree, she settles weightlessly among the greenery.
That evening, Henry visits the oak. Glancing around furtively, he produces a knife from his breeches pocket. ‘E. M.’ he carves into the trunk. ‘1745 – 1763’.
Eliza looks down at him and smiles.
‘I told you, William,’ she whispers. ‘Never will I leave you.’
‘Save King Bill! Preserve don’t kill!’
More people have joined the protest, including a local councillor. Rumour spreads that the town mayor is to make an appearance. Two policemen are overseeing the crowd. One of the contractors leaves the van, in search of a takeaway. His head is down, as if he expects to be heckled, but everyone politely ignores him.
Then three musicians arrive. Each of them carries a camping stool. A man with a cello, two women with violins. By their dress, they appear to have come from a lunchtime recital. The group quietens and makes way for them. Silence, and then the instruments are crying. Bows glide along the strings, releasing grieving vibrations into the autumn air. A lament for the oak.
Mournful tones swirl around, remembering every tree felled in the past and bleakly anticipating every tree felled in the future.
As the last note dies away, an aeroplane rumbles obscenely overhead. The spell of the music is broken. Applause accompanies the trio as they exit the scene. Several people have captured the surreal moment on their phones and are sending the video to friends. Uncertainly, someone bangs the drum a few times. The leader, re-energised, instigates the chant once more.
‘Save King Bill! Preserve don’t kill!’
‘Another war,’ Eliza sighs from the treetop. ‘They never learn, do they, William?’
Searchlights sweep across the dark winter sky. Uncounted years have passed since her fatal leap from the bedroom window. Still she perches in the tree through the changing seasons. At the turn of the century, her family’s estate was gifted to the public. Folk of all kinds now pass beneath the oak’s spreading branches. But not lately. The lawn has given way to rows of vegetables, while the manor is used by one of the new government ministries. Some of the other trees have gone, stumps marking their past majesty. Proud, solid, the old oak remains.
Tonight, the Luftwaffe are out. No warning has been given. There is a whistle, an explosion. The manor is alight.
‘I never liked that place,’ Eliza comments unfeelingly. Scene of strife, a constant struggle between her father’s authority and her own desire for autonomy. There was safety, comfort, security. But she never appreciated those qualities, not knowing what it was like to be without. Always the feeling of powerlessness. Too many wrongs which would never be put right. She had paid little attention to the social changes over the years. Besides, she had no inclination to leave the tree.
She watches the house burn, smoke pouring upwards. ‘William, would you say we are married?’
Bare twigs whisper. A moth flitters.
‘We have been living together for so long, we may as well be. Twin souls, are we not? True minds. I have always been faithful to you. I could not bear to marry Lord – Lord – oh, I have forgotten his name now. But what does it matter? He is long gone. All that matters is you and I. Remember, I made you a promise? Never will I leave you.’
The shriek of another bomb hits the air. It impacts close by, scattering a huge cloud of earth in all directions. Several trees burst into flame. The oak is spared.
‘You see I protect you from harm,’ Eliza says. ‘The love I bear for you is strong. Henry used to think it ridiculous, the way I felt about you. He never said anything, but I could tell. Yet he carved my name on you.’ The trunk has thickened over the years, blurring the letters and numerals out of recognition. Weathered and unreadable as an old inscription on a gravestone.
‘Have you heard of the Royal Oak? One of your relations, perhaps. King Charles the Second hid from his enemies inside the tree. There are similarities. I too am hid in an oak. Only I do not intend to leave you, William. You are all I need, and here I hide from the world forever.’ Eliza strokes the rough bark. Hiding from life, from an unwanted destiny.
‘Do you recall our first meeting, William?’ She wonders. ‘I do not, of course. My early memories of your presence are obscured by the mists of infancy, yet I have known you all my life, and all my death too. I suppose I was very small when we were first introduced. You must have seemed impossibly tall to me, as if you were touching the heavens.’
The air is dense, murky. Invisibly, another aeroplane whines overhead.
‘I do remember when I first named you. I had been learning the history of England and the image of William the Conqueror was in my mind. He struck me as a kind of hero then, but I know better now. There was a vague idea floating around, of you as a conqueror. Of what, I am unsure. Time? My heart? Whatever I was thinking, I went up to you, climbed on to the lowest branch, and told you your name. Now I think that was wrong. Perhaps you already had a name, which I could never know. Like the invaders of lands where the native names die out with their originators, and new names are stamped upon the territory. What gives anybody the right to claim anything as their own, even a single tree? And so my guilt continues. I am yours, but you will never be mine.’
Eliza is aware of figures running to and from the bomb site, but she is not interested enough to observe. She sits in the treetop, branches swaying around her undetectable form. Preferring to think of herself as the oak’s guardian angel, instead of a sad ghost, she is detached from humanity. There may be other spirits around, but she has never noticed. Certainly none have approached her, but she does not mind. Often she imagines nothing else left, at the end of time. Just her and William. Two spirits entwined. Come the apocalypse, they will still be there, untouched as the surrounding landscape cracks open.
Waking as if from an extremely long slumber, Eliza knows that something is wrong. She and the oak are in danger. A mere eighty years have passed since the manor was bombed. Now the threat is not explosives, but bureaucracy and chainsaws. Hoping that the threat will subside, she remains passive. But as the siege of her beloved tree continues, it becomes clear that the defenders require help if they are to win the battle.
Summer, and the oak is in full glory. Children queue for ice cream, sun worshippers sprawl on the grass. The truck with tree-felling equipment arrives every day, only to be confronted by the protesters. Dedicated to their cause, they show no sign of weariness.
‘Save King Bill! Preserve don’t kill!’
‘Something’s got to be done about them,’ a bystander says to a companion. ‘I mean, they can’t be here forever, can they?’
‘I suppose the council will take out an order against them soon. Then the arrests can begin.’
Festooned with more banners and signs than ever, the oak is dressed for a fete. Over four hundred summers have warmed its leaves. Families without number have enjoyed picnics in the shade. Billions of insects have hatched, multiplied. Birds continue to dive in and out of the canopy.
On the lowest branch, a protester sits, megaphone raised. He is about to shout the usual slogan, but freezes for a moment, face pale despite the day’s warmth. Oddly, as if the speech is not his own, his mouth forms different words.
‘Never will I leave you, William! Never!’
Involuntary shivers go through the rest of the group. Words spread rapidly like a virus. The drum beats are louder, faster. Soon everyone is chanting, puzzled at the old-fashioned quality of the phrase, but united in their conviction that it is the right thing to say. Now even the men in the truck are saying it, unconsciously over their coffees and newspapers. The television reporter is back, and now she says it to the camera. Everyone watching the news, at home or at work or in doctors’ surgeries, starts to repeat it.
‘Never will I leave you, William! Never!’
In the council headquarters, an official is putting evidence together for the enforced removal of the activists. Local radio is on; the lunchtime news. The chant echoes over the airwaves. She pauses, blank-faced, and then sweeps the documents to the floor. Picking up the phone, she makes some calls and completes a form. A tree preservation order is fast-tracked. The oak is safe.
Eliza and William sigh. Dazed, the protester with the megaphone almost topples from his perch. Something amazing, something supernatural has happened. He won’t tell anyone that a spirit talked to him in the tree. They’ll think he’s crazy.
As she watches everyone pack up at the end of the day, Eliza smiles. The danger has been averted. She and the oak are left in peace.
Until the next time.
I wrote this story for a competition in 2017, I can’t remember the organiser or if there was a theme. I present it here without further editing.