Evan sat on the branch, swinging her legs as she had done a thousand times before, as she had done since she was a child. The Wishing Tree continued to whisper to her, soothing, caressing, each tender shoot and leaf urging her onwards. The pounding rain lost its power here. Nothing ugly could touch her in this magical place. Shards of moonlight poked intrusively from between the swaying canopy. She sighed. She could lose herself here, utterly. If happiness was a place, something tangible you could grasp or just be in, this was it.
She was vaguely aware of the acidic glow of the streetlights from the top of Hillrise and the distant hum of cars on the motorway. For so many people, this small neglected wood was no more than a dumping ground. Fly-tipping mounds, the cliché of broken shopping trolleys, used condoms, porno mags, beer cans and dog shit littered its dells and grassy knolls…but it was still beautiful.
From an early age Evan had been drawn to the Wishing Tree, though she never knew why. Only she was able to climb its awkward gnarled branches. Only she had ever been brave enough to reach its fingers stretching ever skyward, then dangle like a deranged monkey while her friends screamed and cackled below. She had been invincible. But age tears down such possibilities, age tells you to tread carefully…age puts the fear in you.
Evan watched the breeze catch the leaves around her, as they danced in the broken starlight. She closed her eyes and raised her arms in the air. She thought of the huge condors of South America, gliding on the thermals with their monstrous wings. The feel of the warm air under them, forcing them up. Only her balance could stop her from falling now. She looked into the gloom beneath her feet. At this height and with the rusty railings below, she knew if she fell she would kill herself.
The tree continued to whisper. She felt the soft wind pushing against her and the dappled light shifting over her eyelids. She had the overwhelming desire to let go.
That afternoon had passed in a haze. As always, Evan had trudged up the street to the bend in the road where she could see her house, sitting proudly at the end, and could see which cars were parked in front of it. An old rambling cottage, it sat on the corner of Wolfridge Street and the lane that led up to The Square. Its overgrown brambled garden, lined with old trees, stretched down the road toward her. She looked at the cars outside. Her father was still in and her mum hadn’t come back from work yet.
Evan stood for a moment, deciding what to do.
School had finished at 3:30, it was now 5:39. She couldn’t spend any more time wandering about, in case her mum phoned. She walked briskly, passing the overhanging holly and the three cars which had been left rotting in the garden for as long as she could remember. The radio was blaring in the kitchen as normal. She lifted the latch of the gate, hoping to avoid the usual squeak, but left it ajar in case she had to run. She stopped by the back door. Silence. She couldn’t hear him, no fridge door clattering open and shut, no screeching of chair legs on the quarry tiled floor. Evan turned her key in the lock, she’d perfected how to do this with no sound at all. She stood in the small lobby listening through the stable doors.
It was deathly quiet.
She closed the back door behind her. She’d chance it. With any luck he’d be kipped out on the couch in the living room glued to whatever sport was on, or he’d be upstairs sleeping it off and snoring.
The kitchen was empty. The dog didn’t greet her. He must be in the living room with it. She instinctively looked in the bin to count how many empty cans there were. Ten or twelve by her count.
Suddenly she heard a noise. Shit he’s awake, he’s coming! Evan grabbed her bag and as quickly and silently as she could, crept up the old cobbler stairs and along to her bedroom. If she was quiet enough he wouldn’t realise that she’d come home yet and he might piss on off to work or whatever.
She closed her bedroom door and sat on the edge of the bed, listening, perfectly still. The fridge door went again. The radio was highered. She could hear the muffled voice of her father probably speaking to Fluff their dog, or someone on the phone. Yes, now the back door was opening and he was calling Fluff to go out to toilet before he left. She waited. Eventually the dog came in. She waited for the shuffling he always did, trying to eventually sort himself out for work. She knew she was safe as long as he didn’t come upstairs. If he came upstairs he’d walk along to her room to check if she was in. He was in a hurry today. The back door slammed. Evan relaxed. She was safe. She waited for the gate to go then the predicted heavy footsteps back up to the door because he’d forgotten something. The keys in the door again, scraping chairs in the kitchen, heavy footsteps up the other stairs and the thud of him in her parents’ bedroom. Shit, please go down, don’t come along! Good, good…the steps were going down again.
“Evan? Evan? Are you in?” came the voice suddenly, calling up the old stairs.
She kept silent. Shit, shit! He was coming up. Panicked, she looked for somewhere to hide. Suddenly the stable door clattered shut and the back door slammed again. Keys locking it now then the gate, then his car. Wait, wait for the car to start and watch it leave. Wait…wait.
The street lights glowed red as Evan peered out of her window, keeping herself low, and watched as her father drove off.
Great! Relax. He’s gone.
She closed her eyes, the Wishing Tree was talking to her again, soothing and calming her. The Wishing Tree was always there for her, whispering the answers to her English test, telling her what to say to the bullies at school, warning her of danger. Oh, how she loved it…
She had relied on it more and more over the past few months, as the world around her seemed to slip away. Only she knew the secrets of the Wishing Tree, only she had been lucky enough, special enough, to be chosen. Every wish she had wished, had come true, every one! She only had one more wish to ask…
The evening came and the lights of the village glittered in the cold night. Mum’s voice echoed over the answer machine. Staying overnight for a 2-day conference, Evan had forgotten.
“…We’re going to go down for dinner in a minute.”
“Oh right. How’s the room?”
“You know, basic, it’s alright. Is Dad there?”
“Uh…no…He’s popped out to Tesco’s to get some more milk,” Evan lied. “D’you want me to get him to phone when he’s back?”
“No, don’t worry, we’ll probably be at dinner then. You’ve seen the dinner in the fridge?”
“And there’s salad to go with it if you want.”
“Are you alright? You’re quiet tonight.”
“Yeah I’m fine.”
“How was school?”
“It was fine, Mum…honestly, everything’s fine.”
The phone went dead for a moment.
“Okay, well, I’ll be back tomorrow, it’ll probably be around 6 or 7 though. I’ll phone you if it’s later.”
“Okay, have a nice dinner.”
“I love you sweetheart.”
“I love you too, I’ll tell Dad you phoned…Have a good day tomorrow…I love you Mum.”
“I love you too, god bless, sweet dreams darling.”
“Love you…bye Mum…”
“Sweet dreams.” The phoned clicked off.
“I love you,” whispered Evan.
She held the receiver in her hand and pressed it against her forehead.
She could hear the tick of the grandfather clock in the kitchen and the hum of the fridge. She went downstairs and switched off the noise of the radio. She loved listening to the sounds of the house, the familiar creaks and groans she’d grown up with, in a home that she had loved and feared in equal amounts.
She glided the bolts of the back door across and turned the key. Double locked. Safe. He would have to use the conservatory now. This old house held so many memories, so many secrets, such magical joy and nostalgic happiness and such terror. Evan stood, her back pressed against the stable doors, taking in the view. The cracked quarry tiles, the pine cupboards that never quite fitted together. The solemn stretch of the Victorian sideboard, its dark smooth wood and the brass handles of its heavy drawers.
In summers past, her mother would stand by the window watching her children play in the garden, chasing each other between runner bean canes and past tended borders full of pansies, sweet peas and love-in-the-mist. She remembered the constant wail of the radio and the shrill beating of the electric mixer. Her mum was always baking. The oven was always on. The wire racks loaded with hot jam tarts or cooling sponges, dishes half full with icing or buttercream, flour on counter tops, broken egg shells next to the sink…and always water splashed on the floor.
“Mother’s been in the kitchen!” They’d joke.
Evan touched the mixer, wiping her finger across the rim of the bowl, feeling a thin layer of dust under her skin.
She didn’t understand why, but she knew they did.
Evan switched off the light and left the kitchen in darkness. It was raining. She could hear it clearly now, pounding on the roof of the conservatory. Even in light rain, the sound was so loud the cat would be too frightened to go in. Now, it was thumping down, hitting the PVC like so many fists. Evan found rain to be cleansing, a way of freeing oneself from worries. But rain like this, the sheer violence of it half frightened and half excited her. Standing in the midst of such an onslaught had a way of forcibly emptying any thoughts, filling the head and body with only the pounding noise.
She was glad it was raining. Like tears she thought…tears for me? She walked into the living room, the womb of the house. This, the smallest of rooms and the oldest in the cottage, with its low uneven ceiling and castle-width walls, was dominated by a fireplace far too large for the room, but somehow it worked. The leather sofa, now over 30 years old, bore more creases and lines, but had the warm steady comfort of something lived in, something that had seen and witnessed the best and worst of life and had still survived.
The Wishing Tree whispered again.
“Yes, I know. A fire, that’s what we need.”
A fire had already been laid in the hearth. Evan lit the paper sticks watching carefully as the embers spread until she was sure the fire was lit and well on its way. She didn’t know why, but wanted the house to be warm. With any luck, when father returned, at 2 or 3 in the morning, pissed as a newt, he would come in here and just pass out on the couch. She knew he wouldn’t check upstairs, so she had plenty of time now.
The smoke curled its way up the black chimney as flickers of flame caught light. The fire was blazing. Evan sat for a moment in its warm glow. The rain had stopped.
She glanced out of the window, it was still light, only just though.
The Wishing Tree was waiting…and the promise of yet more adventures. She wanted to reach it before dark. She quickly kissed the cat and dog then opened the conservatory door. She could smell the chimney smoke mixed with the fresh smell of rain. She closed and locked the door behind her. The house was warm and safe.
The sky was black now and amidst the rustling tree branches she could hear rain coming once more, perfect…Magic Time!
Climbing higher in the tree, Evan smiled, swinging her legs again. She had never felt so happy, so light. The Wishing Tree was calling her, calling her to its branches, to its loving embrace. She placed the heavy rope around her neck.
It was time to go.
Sophie E Tallis © 2012