I know it was a Saturday when I first saw the sapling, because it was the same day I drove Lydia to the station, and I don’t like to drive on Saturdays. During the week there are site visits to fit in so I’m expected to drive to the office, to sit queuing for inch-gains of tarmac, to inhale the same invisible particulates as everyone else, to allow my spine to curve into the car-seat shape, soft and passive.
At the office my childhood conditioning is reasserted. I sit or stand with spine erect as I draw lines. ‘Don’t slouch boy, it will become a habit.’ My father’s voice. His figure in the coffin remained unbent, a long straight line.
On weekends I don’t drive. I work in the garden using only manual tools. So, after dropping Lydia at the station and saying an awkward goodbye – watching her struggle to hoist heavy bags towards the departure door – I returned home and garaged the car. I headed for the wildest part of the back garden, skirting around the collapsed remains of the insect house, which looked like one of those simulations: the effect of an earthquake on a low storey building. A few dispossessed insects were making their unsteady way across the garden.
Before Lydia arrived with her soft Welsh lilt and her iconoclastic ideas, I pushed my Silent Cut 21 Reel Mower over the lawn every Friday and the grass was flat and beautiful. An insect could cross it easily.
Well, that Saturday I began to restore order. First the lawn, then the insect house, then her ‘wild flower meadow’ borders: tangled, spiky. ‘Even wild areas need an element of control,’ I’d told her. ‘There are species which will spread tendrils everywhere if not treated ruthlessly, will strangle everything else if allowed.’
I’d watched Lydia’s mobile, impermanent mouth flex as she laughed, watched the coloured braids in her hair dance; I’d stopped trying to make her understand.
The sapling was already settled in when I found it sheltering in the lee of a thistle, growing stealthily. Tree saplings are always obvious, their upright spines, those light green leaves, their attempt – never very good – to look just like another weed, innocuous, weak, easy to get rid of. When I yanked the thistle out, the soil around the waving roots spattered back into the ground and the sapling nodded its head.
Lydia was the temporary receptionist at a client site. She appeared one week and when I provided my name asked what colour I was.
It seemed odd and my chin lifted. ‘White. Caucasian.’
‘Try again. The closest folders to white were beige and I threw those away, refiled them.’ She climbed onto her rotating chair, which spun.
Her flung arm caught at the shelf of records.
‘What about green?’ She pulled five green wallets out, flicked through.
‘I’m filed under “S”.’
‘Not in the new system. ‘See,’ she gestured. ‘It looks better.’
Bands of colour, reds, oranges, yellows, greens and blue. Not quite a rainbow.
‘But if you can’t find…’
‘I always do, eventually. Perhaps,’ she said, ‘you’re a closet orange.’
On each visit, while I sat on the only upright chair, waiting, Lydia chatted. She asked questions, was never satisfied with standard answers.
‘But what do you really do, each day?’
‘I squeeze,’ I admitted, at last. ‘I fit houses into small spaces – squares, triangles, misshapes of land. I produce white and black drawings of little “Pete Seeger” boxes, and they get built.’
Her eyes blanked at the folk-singer’s name, but what she asked was, ‘Doesn’t it hurt?’
Her ringing phone seemed a welcome distraction.
‘Is it what you dreamed of?’ she said.
‘What about you? This is hardly –’
‘Oh, this isn’t permanent. If I stay too long, anywhere, employers get restless.’
I eyed the ringing phone, the colour-coordinated records, the cup on the windowsill filled with browning rose petals and water.
‘They don’t like your…’ I rejected several words, settled on, ‘…idiosyncrasies?’
‘Good word.’ She put a cushion over the ringing phone. ‘You’re right, they don’t. But I’m a temp. By the time they discover them, I’m already half-gone. There’s no point in firing me.’
When my client’s receptionist returned, Lydia moved in with me.
‘Just temporary-like. Until you discover my…’
‘I know.’ I’d cut her off.
She brought chaos into my life: burnt toast in the kitchen, spread hues of colour through my shirts as they churned and twisted round her African cottons, rearranged furniture into an obstacle course.
‘It’s feng shui,’ she said, ‘I read it in a book once.’
She hung bird feeders on the budded branches of my discovery apple tree, confiscated my slug pellets, and of course – built an insect house.
She talked to the neighbours, brought back details, names: Eddie next door, ‘bought that boat as a wreck, spent years making it sea-worthy.’ At the weekends, her gaze would trail the hauling car, the swaying boat, until he rounded the corner.
‘I’ve never yet lived on the sea,’ she said. ‘Only ever crossed it.’
She got a job on a steamer. ‘Only temporary-like, until they…’
She’d waited for me to cut her off, to save her the hassle of finishing the sentence. But my lips were pressed together.
She left me the bird feeders, the feng shui obstacle course, the colour-streaked shirts. I don’t understand what happened with the insect house. Maybe I just wanted to see her face in the morning. But she never looked in the garden, just dragged her bags out to the car. So perhaps she, and not I, was the one who stamped on it. Although the footprint looks suspiciously large – and her feet are slender, nimble, good for skipping away, dancing on the earth. Not so good for rooting.
I left the tree sapling where it was. Even though I know that if you don’t get them out early, they’re absolute buggers to shift.
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