The Faraway TreeSubmitted by Merlina at 2007-09-12 11:33:48 EDT
Rating: 1.86 on 30 ratings (30 reviews) (Review this item) (V)
The apple tree set in the corner of our garden was where I was happiest as a little girl. The swing was tied with thick, hairy rope to the knarled branches of the tree, the red plastic seat swayed rhythmically in the warm evening breeze. Wasps and insects hovered and hummed around the feast of overripe apples that lay sleeping in the shade of long grass. Swollen blackberries dripped from bushes, their juice staining my lips and fingertips an inky purple that reminded me of the village school with its old wooden desks and ink wells. I’d attended the school for two weeks until my parents decided to educate me at home. My father would set work on Math, English and History at night leaving the handwritten pages on the kitchen table for me to find before breakfast. Once I’d completed the questions I was left to amuse myself as I pleased. My two sisters, brother and I would play at Gymkhanas using broom handles and spades as horses, our collection of stones, rocks and timber served as the jumps. We sometimes tried to collect butterflies for the collection that my father kept in a glass case but were rarely successful. We were convinced that our pet caterpillar kept in a jam jar, the metal lid spiked with air holes, would evolve into a beautiful blue creature with iridescent wings. The horror of finding, after several days, what looked like a rattlesnake’s tail instead of our caterpillar sent a flash of fright from my stomach to my scalp.
In the summer evenings, walking through the daisy speckled grass, passing the flower beds that glowed with flames of yellow and orange marigolds, I entered into another world. I held my books protectively against my chest, shedding my ordinary existence like superfluous skin. In the corner of the garden, sitting on the swing I became friends with Mary, Felicity and Janet. Our conversations were whispered behind cupped hands, giggles stifled with handkerchiefs and girlish hands. Sometimes, wanting to be alone, I closed my book, leaving my friends in the comfort of the worn pages whilst I swung beneath the creaking bowed branches of the tree. The rustling leaves dappled my arms with patchwork sleeves, the warm sun cast long, curved shadows of my outstretched legs across the grass as I flew skywards with my head tilted back. When I shut my eyes I felt giddy with the sensation of flight, flung through the air by the talons of a magnificent eagle to be caught in the arms of a prince as I fell towards the earth. I laughed joyfully into the brilliant light of the future.
As the sun slowly slipped towards the hazy fields of hay etched on the horizon, the distinct rhythmical hum of my father’s car could be heard in the distance, drowning the sounds of hovering insects and neighbouring tractors. As he wound his way along the narrow road to home, I would collect my books and walk towards the black iron gate, gravel slipping between the straps of my sandals. Opening the gate, I would stand and wait for his white car to creep over the stones to its resting place. My father in a grey suit and white shirt stepping out of the car, coins clinking in his pockets would smile and ruffle my curly hair. As we walked towards the small house, he held my hand that looked so small and insignificant, the fingertips barely showing beneath his strong, warm grasp. Light flickered from the kitchen window into the evening air, American voices and police sirens assaulted us as he opened the door. My mother was watching television, her eyes intent on the unfolding drama, her lips a twitching line of concentration on her pale face.
My sister was asleep, her slim arms wrapped around her red and white bear, her long braided hair hung over the side of her pillow like ropes reaching over the side of a tower. I crept towards my bed, undressed and pulled my long white cotton nightdress over my head and slipped between the cool sheets. As I lay in the dimming light, watching the shadows of curtains sway and rustle against the window, I heard their voices echoing along the thin pink floral walls. My mother’s voice rose and fell, the words muffled but the tone was unmistakable. We’d all become familiar with my mother’s sadness, her loneliness and her obsessive love of my father.
As I lay quietly in the shadows, I imagined my father’s strong hands pushing back his fine blond hair from his forehead and sigh. My mother’s footsteps paced back and forth on the wooden floor, each step punctuating the flow of her accusations. I closed my eyes praying that I would be left in my bed. If my mother thought I was awake she would insist that I witness the argument and haul me sleepy eyed into the kitchen where my father would be sitting at the table, his head clasped in his hands. I dreaded the moment, in which I was expected to agree with my mother’s arguments but had little choice. I have no-one else to turn to; she would tell me the following day. I had listened to this for as long as I could remember, each time with more trepidation than the last. I’d learnt at an early age to go along with everything my mother asked of me even though I felt I’d betrayed my father. If he had spent as much time with my mother as I did, he would understand why.
As my mother’s voice was becoming less insistent and my father’s more soothing, I felt my shoulders sink into the bed, my eyelids fluttered and drooped shading my eyes in inky darkness.
Maggie reached for her brown leather handbag and cursorily ran her eyes over the pile of used plates stacked next to the sink. Gravy dripped from the edge of one plate creating a congealed river of brown sludge on the wooden worktop. Salt and pepper sprinkled the surface of the table, half filled glasses of water smudged with greasy fingertips and a newspaper sat abandoned. She heard the sound of a sitcom’s canned laughter and sighed heavily. Not enough time to clear up the mess now, she realised as she looked at her watch. She wanted to have a quick chat with Helen, the staff nurse, before starting her shift at the hospital in thirty minutes.
‘Bye love. Bye kids. I’m off now,’ she called out from the kitchen door.
Alf and the kids shouted their goodbyes from the comfort of the living room, their laughter and chatter easing her conscience at having to dash off to work so soon after dinner.
‘Don’t forget the dishes,’ she reminded Jack and Sarah before pulling the door shut behind her.
Helen was casting a rueful eye over a patient’s file when Maggie entered the psychiatric ward at Colnbrock Hospital twenty minutes later. The lamp on the large wooden desk cast a blue glow over the white sheets of the beds and polished floor emphasising Maggie’s notion that the ward was a peaceful greenhouse incubating exotic flowers.
‘Hi, Helen. How’s things been today? Quiet? ‘Oh, you know, the usual. Not enough staff and too much work.’ Helen had worked at Colnbrock for almost ten years now and her only complaint was the lack of staff but at least that meant she was able work overtime for which she was grateful. The extra money had paid for the never ending renovations of Heather Cottage, the home that she and Dave had fallen in love with fours years ago.
‘Mrs. Dalston still thinks she’s a member of staff and not a patient,’ Helen laughed ‘and Fred, bless him, still doesn’t understand that he doesn’t have to get ready for work every morning. He’s eighty, if he’s a day and hasn’t worked for twenty years.’
Maggie nodded in sympathy, and picked up the patient’s file that was lying on the desk. Judith Fernley’s name was printed in uncompromising black ink on the top sheet.
‘How’s Judith been today? Talking yet? Maggie had become particularly fond of this patient. Maybe it was because she was quiet, easier to handle than some of the other patients or maybe it was because she felt a certain amount of empathy for the woman who was the same age as herself.
‘Not a dicky bird. Just sits and stares out of the window. I’m hoping her sister will visit at the weekend and bring her some new books. She’s read all the ones from the library’.
‘I’ve brought her one from home,’ Maggie said, pulling a paperback book from her overall pocket and returning Judith’s file to the pile of others on the desk.
'Me and Sarah sorted out her bedroom today. A bit of a clear out really. She wanted to get rid of the toys and books that are too young for her’.
‘It’s odd isn’t it? That Judith only wants to read children’s books? Helen said. ‘When she was admitted, back in January, her ex-husband told Dr. Carter that she even named her two daughters after characters in a book, that she’d read as a child.’
Maggie looked at the worn cover of the book. What had happened to turn this woman, a mother, sister and wife into the sad, lonely figure she had become? Why would she not speak and spend hours sitting in the hospital grounds reading children’s stories? Was it something to do with her mother’s suicide when Judith was a little girl? But that was such a long time ago Maggie reasoned to herself.
‘There’s nothing unusual about that.’ Maggie felt slightly defensive remembering how Alf had laughed, over twelve years ago when she’d suggested naming their newborn daughter Scarlett. Her husband’s less glamorous choice had triumphed in the end.
‘And, she’s not difficult, compared to some of the others,’ Maggie said looking pointedly at Mrs. Dalton’s cubicle.
‘Isn’t that the truth,’ said Helen pushing her chair back from the desk. ‘Fancy a cuppa before we start updating the files?
‘That’d be lovely’. Maggie smiled at the offer and thought how rarely anyone at home ever made tea apart from herself. ‘I’m just going to look in on Judith first and see if she’s still awake. She’ll probably appreciate reading a few pages before settling down for the night’.
Maggie’s soft soled shoes squeaked on the polished floor as she walked towards the end of the ward. The curtains around Judith’s cubicle were drawn and the nightlight above her bed glimmered softly. Maggie pulled back the curtain and saw that Judith was sitting upright in the bed, sheets neatly pulled over her lap with her hands loosely clasped together. Her long hair glowing under the light framed her pale face, her eyes appeared to be fixed straight ahead at the daisy chain pattern on the curtain surrounding her bed and Maggie was momentarily struck by the tranquil expression on this woman’s face.
‘Hello Judith’ Maggie spoke softly not wanting to startle her patient. ‘I’ve brought a book for you’. She sat on the edge of the bed and laid the paperback book on the white sheet. Judith’s eyes blinked slowly as though emerging from sleep, she looked at Maggie and then at the book lying next to her thighs. She unclasped her hands and slowly reached out with long pale fingers picking up the book. She studied the cover of The Faraway Tree a delicate smile forming on her lips, slowly spreading across her face and lighting her eyes.
For the first time in many months Judith looked into Maggie’s face and in silence mouthed two small words ‘Thank you’.