Read In the Shadow of the Trees Online

Authors: Elenor Gill

Tags: #Fiction, #General

In the Shadow of the Trees

ONE

Wood never dies. Not really. Not completely.

A bolt of lightning, cleaving the heart, destroys but cannot kill. The fibrous flesh, like a torn peach, glows golden beneath the axe. Leave it to crack in the parching sun; let wind batter and bleach it to the grey-white of old bones. Still, it will live.

True, it sleeps the sleep of Lazarus, yet there is always a warmth, a whisper of life. I feel it pulsing, faint, so very faint. Sometimes, when I touch it, I know that I can bring it back.

As a surgeon, I am harsher than its cruellest tormentor. But the wood knows this to be the pain of genesis and it works with me. I cut and scrape and hack. The sinewy grain swirls beneath my fingers, struggling to find shape. A faltering pulse becomes a sob, a groan, a cry of triumph and the form emerges, reborn through my hands.

Yes, there are some things about wood that never die, and I think it would be better if they did.

M
Y
arm rested on the open window of the truck to catch the sun. I knew I’d regret it later when my skin grew tight and red, but just then I needed to feel its hot sting, the coolness of air slipping through my fingers, the wind tumbling my hair.
I had been too long in the city. Although it was early summer and the heat made the road surface quiver, the sunglasses I wore were there to hide the redness of my eyes. They also allowed me to take surreptitious glances at the driver, tiny sips of honey.

Of course Jason knew I was looking at him. He turned and smiled. ‘Not far now,’ he said, ‘the turn-off’s just up ahead.’

I resisted the impulse to say something, to place my hand on his arm. I knew it would start all over again. So I turned away and tried to concentrate on the small hills slipping past the window. He watched the road.

This truck was mine, my latest toy, a Land Rover, all chrome bull bars and rows of superfluous spotlights. For tax purposes, or so my accountant said: a necessity for transporting my work. That’s my excuse too.

I took another sip of honey. He was everything in the sunlight. The hairs on the backs of his hands were like the finest threads of spun toffee. I wanted to lick their sweetness. His face was tanned, the fringe bleached from leaning backwards over the sides of yachts. His eyes were too blue, the pupils dilated from something I didn’t ask about. As of the previous evening, it was no longer my concern.

It’s all wrong, you know, what they say about young men and older women. Jason had not restored my fading youth. I was only twenty-nine—less than a decade between us, and he made me feel ancient. On the way down he had begged me to stop for ice cream, then sulked until I let him drive. If this had gone on much longer, I thought, I would have turned into his mother.

We slid left onto a dirt track and started pulling uphill, weaving between rows of green baize mounds, each higher than the last and cut into sections by posts and wire. I looked back to find the road no longer existed, so there was no going back.

‘When do we get to your father’s place?’ I asked.

‘We are there. This is it. As far as you can see.’

‘All this is yours?’

‘Dad’s, to be exact. Though I suppose it will be mine eventually. I can’t imagine the old bugger ever selling. Family’s been here for generations. Some of them are buried here. I’ll show you.’

‘Oh, great. I’ll look forward to that!’ I waved at some sheep, unmoved by our passing. They’d seen it all before. ‘He doesn’t look after all this by himself, does he? There doesn’t seem to be anyone working.’

‘“Look after” isn’t exactly how I’d put it. Nah, he’s usually got some men around the place. No one regular, just drifters. He drives about in one of those off-road things that farmers have. Moves a few sheep about and there’s some cows that need attending to. Doesn’t really need the money, you see. That’s all taken care of. You know, family stuff.’

We reached the highest point and the world was suddenly full of sky before the truck tumbled over the brow and started to nose-dive through a forest of pine. The track was enclosed in a tunnel of indigo shadows through which we bumped and shook over submerged roots. It was like being in some carnival ride, a ghost train maybe. Abruptly Jason slowed the vehicle to a crawl, the trees broke up and the fairground was left behind.

And there was the sky come down to earth.

It was laid out before us, a watery palette of cerulean and white set between the green of the hills. The water’s edge crimpled against swathes of long grass, its surface buckled by the wind. We drove on as the road wound around the lake’s edge and under groves of hanging willow. Patches of vegetation scrambled over the banks and a flock of birds, startled by our passing, exploded from a reed bed and flapped for the safety of the branches.

‘Jason, you didn’t tell me. A lake!’

‘I said you’d like it. You should trust me.’

‘It’s amazing.’

‘Full of trout. I learned to fish there, and swim. Look, that’s where you’ll be staying. The cottage.’ He nodded over his shoulder and I saw a dolls’ house perched near the opposite
bank. ‘The road goes right the way round. We’ll stop at the house first.’

A distant volley of barking announced our arrival. I was still watching the cottage dwindle to the far edge of the lake when he stopped the truck and cut the engine.

‘This is it.’ Jason jumped down, slamming the door.

The house lived only in shadow. I had to blink and rub the sun from my eyes before it emerged from the murkiness of the trees. What I felt was disappointment. Everything else was perfect, and then this decaying carcass of a place.

‘Your father lives here alone, you said?’

‘Yeah, though he spends most of his time in the pub. Just comes to the house to eat and sleep. Come on, I could do with a beer.’

He bounded up onto the verandah and through the open door. I followed cautiously, the rotten steps groaning with each shift of my feet. The deck was speckled with flaking paint that had drifted down from the weatherboards, like confetti from some long-forgotten wedding. Once-rich curtaining formed cataracts over the windows and I entered unseen. The hallway, which ran through to the back of the house, was caked with neglect and the kitchen smelt of stale cigarettes and old fat.

‘Struck gold!’ The top half of Jason had been swallowed up by the fridge. He struggled free, arms loaded with bottles. ‘Here. Can you manage the top?’

‘You think I can’t open my own beer?’ I hadn’t realised how thirsty I was. Between gulps I held the glass to the side of my face, then the insides of my wrists. ‘I hope there’s a shower at this cottage.’

‘Of course. Look, you’re going to love it, I promise. Have I ever lied to you?’

‘Constantly.’ No, I didn’t want to start that all again. ‘And you’re leaving tonight, aren’t you? You promised that too.’

‘Sooner probably. Just say hello to the old man, get you unloaded, then I’m away.’

The back door banged open and suddenly the room was a whirlpool of black fur and wagging bodies and pounding tails. The Hound of the Baskervilles hurled itself at me. Beer slopped down my front.

‘Badger! Bramble! Down, you hear me!’ A man tried to drag the dog off me by its collar.

‘Hi Dad,’ Jason gasped. He was on the floor wrestling with another beast who was giving him a rough going over with its tongue.

‘I said down, Bramble!’ I guessed Bramble must be the one with its paws on my shoulders, helping to clean the beer off my shirt. Eventually the man won and Bramble, undeterred, waded into the assault on Jason.

‘Sorry, they’re not used to visitors.’

‘I’m all right, really. Not sure about Jason though.’

‘Yes, well, nothing he can’t handle.’ The man was tall and lean. He just stood there, hanging from his shoulders, and twisting the brim of his hat through his hands.

‘OK guys, that’s enough. I give in.’ A grinning Jason surfaced from the doggy heap and scrambled to his feet.

‘What sort of dogs are they?’ I asked. ‘They don’t look like sheep dogs.’

Jason shook his head. ‘The sheep would run rings round these two. No, they’re German pointers. At least, that’s what it said on the label.’

‘Aren’t they like Dobermans? They’re guard dogs, aren’t they? Are they supposed to be fierce?’

‘They’re good watchdogs. It said that on the label, too, only the dogs can’t read. We think their ancestry got crossed somewhere. Anyway, intruders don’t know that. Hey, let me introduce you to my father. Dad, this is Regan.’ The man whipped round to stare at me.


This
is Regan? But I thought…you said one of your mates.’

‘That’s right. This is my mate, Regan. Oh, I see, you thought she was a man?’

The father stared hard at me again, then turned to Jason. He looked as if the ground had rocked beneath him. Of course he thought I was a man. That’s what he was supposed to think. What the hell was Jason playing at?

‘She can’t stay here. You know that.’

‘It’s all agreed. Three months, you said—’

I felt the heat rising. I had to say something. ‘Look, if it’s not all right, I can make some other arrangement.’

‘Like hell you will.’ Jason’s face darkened.

‘All right Jason.’ I stepped between them, knowing how quickly he could become angry. ‘I’m sorry. There’s obviously been some misunderstanding. I thought your son had explained all about my being here. Perhaps it’s my fault. I should have contacted you myself, made everything clear.’

Jason’s father wiped the palm of his hand down his face. The dogs, sensing something was wrong, sat panting, their tails gently drumming the wooden floor. The man looked…not angry. Concerned, maybe. And something else.

‘Mr Sullivan. Is there some problem about my being a female?’

He gazed at me. His eyes were watery grey, his skin suddenly ashen beneath the tan. ‘No, no. It’s just…just…isolated. The cottage…’

‘Look, Mr Sullivan, isolated is what I need right now. I want somewhere I can work. The cottage looks perfect.’

‘Not right for a woman on her own.’

‘But we’re on private land. What can possibly happen to me?’

‘Yes, tell her, Dad, what could possibly happen to a woman out here?’ Jason swigged his beer. A smile flickered at the corner of his mouth.

Mr Sullivan looked from one of us to the other. I could feel the
undercurrents swirling between the two men, with me caught in the middle. This was one of Jason’s games and I was being sucked in. I floundered, struggling to find the words.

‘I just need to get away for a while. Somewhere on my own where I can work. I’ve come this far, brought all my stuff.’ I stumbled on, though it seemed he was only half listening to me. ‘I can look after myself. I’ll keep right out of your way. I can work quietly—you won’t know I’m there. Promise I won’t scare the sheep.’ Still no response. ‘Couldn’t we just try? If it doesn’t work out I’ll leave straight away.’

‘I’m sorry, Miss Regan, it’s not what I was expecting. I’ll have to think about this.’

‘It’s Regan—that’s my first name. I’m Regan Porter.’ I held out my hand. He looked at it for a moment with no understanding. Then it was as if he shook himself out of a stupor and stepped toward me.

‘Sullivan, just call me Sullivan.’ His hand was rough, but surprisingly dry, his grip definite, not the sweaty paw shake I’d expected. The sleeves of his checked shirt rolled up to the elbows showed arms that were muscled and weather-worn. The hairs were fine like Jason’s, but grey. They matched the stubble on his face. How old? Jason was only twenty but his father looked sixty at least. He had Jason’s build, but where the son was smooth and svelte, Sullivan was gaunt, as if life had sucked the youth from his veins.

‘You say you’ll be on your own. The lad’s not stopping then?’

‘Yes. That’s right, isn’t it, Jason?’ I looked around for confirmation.

He was leaning against the fridge, watching the exchange as if it were staged for his amusement. He raised one eyebrow in response. I could have hit him.

‘He says he’s got a motorbike here. He’ll drive back later today.’

‘It won’t be easy, you know, being out here on your own. The
cottage is round the other side of the lake, a good few minutes away, even in a car. There’re possums and rats.’

‘I don’t scare easy.’

‘Yes, I can believe that. It’s nothing fancy, you know.’

‘That’s OK.’

‘Well, I suppose you could take a look.’

‘What the fuck was all that about?’ I slammed the truck door. Jason already had the engine running.

‘What was what about?’

‘You know bloody well. What’s the game this time, Jason? Don’t you realise you’ve put me in an awful position, embarrassed me, and your father.’

‘You? Embarrassed? Never. Look, we just got our wires crossed, that’s all. You should have heard yourself sweet-talk him down.’

‘No bloody thanks to you.’

‘Thought you didn’t need my help any more. Anyway, everything’s cool now. You two are going to get along fine.’

‘What’s he got against women, anyhow?’

Jason watched the road while I fumed and struggled with the seatbelt. Sullivan was a hundred yards ahead, driving a sort of mini-tractor. Badger and Bramble stood and barked in the back despite the violent rocking of the vehicle. They seemed incapable of being still.

The dirt road continued around the lake, leading to the little white building at the far end. Pine trees had given way to open meadow. Then smaller, native trees edged the water, building up to an area of standing bush that formed a backdrop to the cottage. Even at this distance it looked like a home, the afternoon sun dusting the corrugated roof and the windows burnished with gold.

I had gone into the wilderness to be alone with my art. This is what I took with me:

A suitcase of clothes, jeans, shirts, sweaters, the usual stuff.

Two spare pairs of boots (the only sort of footwear I possessed at the time) and a full-length raincoat.

My laptop (I can’t function without it) and a new cellphone.

Travel bag of face creams and shampoos and bath foams (yes, I do all the girlie stuff too).

Portable radio/CD player and a stack of CDs (Mozart, John Coltrane, Black Sabbath, Mahler).

A stock of food, vegetables, pasta, rice (no animal stuff), a coffee grinder and beans.

Crate of red wine.

Drawing materials.

A pile of books (Pasternak, Duffy, Keri Hulme, Atwood, etc.).

Disassembled workbench, vices, clamps, etc., and a bag of smaller tools.

A tree trunk.

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