“Excuse me, young man. You can’t do that.”
When he looked, there was nobody there. Must have been a crossed line or something. His girlfriend noted his pause in their conversation and said his name.
He remembered, and put his phone to his ear.
“Sorry. Just thought someone was here. Can you get a crossed line on a mobile?
“I dunno. Why?
Darren looked about again. No people. Not living ones anyway. Just stones, grass, and trees.
“Okay, well, enjoy chopping your tree down. Don’t forget to get potatoes on your way home.”
“I won’t. Love you.”
He felt that same twang of loss he always felt when Laura left. The end of a phone call, leaving the flat, even when she went to the loo he felt it. If only he could make that same all-encompassing feeling into one that wouldn’t let him forget to pick up potatoes on the way home.
“Potatoes. Potatoes.” Darren pressed his brain to remember.
“You can’t chop me down, you know.”
That same voice. Still nobody was there. Nobody was anywhere at this time in the morning, in a graveyard, under an Ash tree.
“Hello?” Darren called.
“Hello,” came the immediate reply that made Darren fall over Charlie Whiley, 1924 – 1998, ‘Loved by Many’. The stone surround gave way under Darren’s safety boot, leaving Darren’s bottom in the middle of Charlie’s crispy dahlias. It struck Darren how alone he was at that moment. Except for the tree. He was only there alone because he’d got there first. He’d arranged with his gang last night to meet them there. The graveyard was near to his house, so might as well. It meant he’d got an extra ten minutes in bed, which meant he was feeling quite chirpy this morning. Until now.
“Where will all the souls go?” said the tree.
Yes, the tree.
“The tree.” said Darren.
“Yes, I am indeed a tree,” said the tree. “Got a clever one here!” it seemed to shout into the air. The logical side of Darren’s brain said it was the wind, even though the sensory part of his brain told him there wasn’t any, but he could have sworn the tree let out a kind of bristling chuckle. Somehow. With its branches, or something, said Darren’s validation part of his brain.
“We’ve had your sort before. The last one was just after Vera’s funeral, just over there.” The tree’s leaves seem to point to Darren’s left with a senseless breeze, towards a grey headstone that was one of the newer ones, ‘Vera Brock, Born 1945. Taken from us, 2008.’ A crocheted robin sat where the remains of Vera’s head would be six feet beneath. The red had run into the white, making it look like it was bleeding from its chest. “She’s still worried about her dog, poor girl.” The Ash released some dried up seeds, and they sighed wearily down to the mossy grass. “No sooner was she in the ground, he turned up. He had the same thoughts as you, that one. Came with his murder weapons and whatnot,” said the tree, mostly unheard.
“You spoke?” said Darren, not quite able to say what he meant.
The matter of fact tone the tree was adopting with Darren made him feel able to stand again, and even approach the huge Ash, just close enough to check around the whole trunk. It would be the kind of thing Mike would do, just to get a rise. Makes the job tolerable, he says. But, disappointingly, Mike wasn’t there. Darren looked up into the branches.
“You always look so shocked, you lot. I forget your species is so ignorant sometimes.”
“Shocked that a bloody tree is talking to me? Yeah, damn right I’m shocked,” said Darren.
“It’s your own fault.”
“If I was going to chop you down don’t you think you might say something in your own defence?”
The tree had a point, thought Darren.
“You nourish us with your dead, provide a place for your discarded souls, and then just one day, out of nowhere, on some pedantic human whim you decide that’s it, time to die. Turfing your loved ones’ souls out into the wilderness. Causing all sorts of havoc. The suffering, the rage. Ohh.” The tree curled in on itself, like it was hiding from the images it remembered. “The anger and the pain that you still seek to enhance with your threats and torturous deeds. The woe. The piteous grief. The needless deaths. You want to be responsible for that?”
Darren didn’t, he didn’t think. But… “It’s my job. I’ve got to. It’s on the list,” he said, and almost immediately wished he hadn’t. The Ash shook, its leaves shimmering, seeds clacking. A couple of crispy ones fell in front of Darren’s black standard issue PPE boot.
“That’s what he said. The last one of you who came to murder us. Do you have no control over yourselves any longer? Who are these lists and jobs? Why are they the ones you follow?”
“Follow? No, look…” said Darren, still trying to get his head round the fact he was conversing with a tree, trying to explain council policy to a tree, and asking a tree – a tree – questions. “What do you mean about souls? That thing you said about havoc, suffering, and the…er…the needless deaths bit, what’s that?”
“It isn’t a coincidence trees are usually in graveyards, you know,” the huge Ash said, seeming to shake itself upright, tall and proud. “Your gardens, at the side of your concrete travelling strips, within your contrived areas of bartering, in the places you’ve forgotten, in the places you’ve never known, there may be a tree, there may not. But you will always find a tree in a graveyard. And that isn’t for no reason.” The tree paused and turned slightly. “Ask your friend.”
“He’s over there.”
The Ash pointed its leaves towards the other side of the graveyard, underneath a beautiful old willow tree. “He died not long after. The souls took that much of a disliking to him, you see.”
“You mean…” said Darren, very unsure of himself, the current status of his sanity, and what exactly the consequences of his following orders would be.
“Oh yes,” said Ash, “They’ll do anything to rest in peace, our souls.”
“So he was…”
“Murdered, yes. By the souls, yes.” Darren couldn’t be sure, but the tree seemed to be conveying smugness in its words. “Tony Pockleton, 1955 to 2008. His last thoughts are on his stone. What were they now?” The branches next to Darren bent inwards towards its trunk, as if in thought. “‘Too soon?’ Isn’t that right, Willow?”
Willow nodded, her branches swaying in time. “Oh yes,” she whispered, “‘Too soon,’ and ‘Pickled eggs for lunch’,” she confirmed.
“What?! There’s more of you?” Darren’s eyes widened in an attempt to take in the overwhelming information his brain was receiving. Then…
“What?” came a scratchy voice from near the ancient Westmorland family crypt. Darren turned, wanting desperately to see a human being, but instead…
“Shut up, Yew,” said Ash.
“Shut up, Yew. Be quiet, Yew. Stop creaking, Yew. Can’t do anything right can I?” moaned the tree. It’s branches rattled in frustration.
“You’ve been nothing but trouble since that Billy Cray was put between your roots.”
“I can’t help who they put on my patch, can I? Anyway,” said Yew defiantly, “I quite like him.”
“Huh!” said Ash, his leaves turning away from the corrupt plant.
“He’s got a good sense of death, has Billy,” continued Yew. “He appreciates it.”
“You’re diseased,” said Ash. “Only you don’t see it because you’re Yew. Stupid Yew.”
“And you’re top notch grafted perfection I suppose?” Yew’s branches scraped against each other as it turned accusingly towards Ash. Ash’s tops bent up towards the sky, as if studying the early morning pink clouds closely.
“Yeah,” said Yew, “Like I don’t see you fondling Willow’s roots late at night, huh?”
Ash was silent, but his bark tensed. “I don’t know what you mean,” said Ash, finally.
“I’m sure you don’t, hey, Willow?” the prickly tree shouted across the graveyard.
“My roots are tired,” sighed Willow. “I can’t be bothered with you, Yew.”
“Ha!,” bristled Yew. “See! Tired roots. Not surprised, eh, Ash.” The Yew tree shook as a hissing kind of wheeze emanated from its twiggy branches.
“I think we’d all be grateful, young man, if you dug that monstrosity up and burned it into nothing,” said Ash, branches still skyward.
Darren could only stare wide eyed at the cantankerous evergreen, which, he felt, was very much staring back at him. Its needles pointed in his direction.
“Another one come to assert his dominance, has he?” Ash swayed, but said nothing. “200 years I’ve been here,” said the Yew, with pride, “And still you lot think nothing of ripping us up, our roots soaked with your dead, remembering lives you’ve long forgotten. Fickle species, you are.”
“I didn’t think…” stammered Darren, then began again. “I just didn’t know that’s how it worked. It’s not something that’s ever crossed my mind, if I’m perfectly…”
“Ha!” howled the Yew, and shed some needles in its outrage. “Mind? Your short sighted little mind, unnourished and shrivelled. That stupid Ash and his girlfriend over there are but children of this graveyard, but I’m sure he’s already stolen half of your unoriginal thoughts while you’ve been standing there gaping that slack jaw of yours.”
Darren looked up into the never ending branches of the Ash.
“You’ve stolen my thoughts?”
“Only the last ones you had. Nothing important, unless…”
“Unless you make the wrong decision, of course.” The Ash shook its branches. It seemed amused. The Yew cracked its bark. Willow’s long stringy branches hissed in the non-existent breeze. He didn’t know how he knew, but Darren could tell they were laughing at him. The ground seemed to vibrate beneath him, and the mossy grass cracked, revealing roots that broke through the earth as if it was but a moist chocolate cake. The soil crumbled and disappeared as more roots emerged, larger and more tangled, enjoying the air in which they danced, twirling and grasping. The rattling of the branches and the singing of the leaves engulfed Darren’s senses until the noise of the mortal world could no longer get to his ears. He squeezed his own head between his sweating palms and fell to his knees, entangled in the carpet of the underground. Then, as suddenly as it had all started, everything went quiet. Very quiet. Darren unplugged his head from his hands and wiped his palms on his thighs. The mossy grass was soft underneath him, and he pushed against it to upright himself. His dry throat heaved in some clarifying breaths while his terrified eyes searched his now silent tormentors.
Beyond the iron gates the gang pulled up in the well-used council truck, the rattling of its steel cage on the back arriving before the truck.
“They’re here. What am I going to tell them?” said Darren. But there was no reply. Darren paced around the Ash’s trunk, pulling at his lip, stroking the back of his neck, clutching his head while he thought, hard.
“I can’t tell them. They’ll think I’ve gone off on one,” he said, to no one. “Joined the tree huggers.”
Mike was getting out of the van. Dave would be gathering the paperwork in the driver’s seat. But it wouldn’t take him long.
“I can’t. My job. My Laura. I just can’t.” Darren’s safety boot caught on a root he was sure wasn’t sticking out during the other five circles of the Ash tree he’d just made. He fell, face first, on to Geoffrey Hopkins, 1910 – 1976, ‘And into the earth I go to lose my mind and find my soul.’
Mike was opening the rusty cage at the back of the van. The lock stuck sometimes, and Darren could hear the squeaks of uncompliant metal. Darren scrambled to his feet. “They’ll understand.” He realised what he’d just said to himself. “Oh yeah, lads, look, I’ve been having a bit of a chat with the tree and it says we can’t cut it down, so let’s just leave it, eh?” He laughed at himself as he leaned on the Ash’s thick trunk. Then, just next to his left ear, he could hear something chewing. Munching. Scraping. He closed his eyes for a moment, knowing that whatever it was he wasn’t going to like it very much. Slowly he turned his squinted left eye towards the noise, and there, just finishing up in the thick Ash bark were the beautifully carved words, “Sounds okay to me.” Darren shot forward, away from the silently speaking trunk.
“You’re a tree! Of course it sounds okay to you. I don’t have to convince you that you talk, that I’ve been talking to you, and that I’ve not completely lost it!”
Darren ran his hand over his face, massaging the tension it felt. He could see Mike pulling the chainsaw out of the cage. Dave’s staunch form was stomping its way towards him with clanking harnesses and yellow hard hats.
“You’ve bloody lost it, Darren,” said Darren to himself. “Get a fucking grip man!”
“All right there Daz?” said Dave, using the shortened version of Darren’s name purely to annoy him. Darren breathed deeply, a breath of composure, a breath of decision, and turned to his colleague.
“Enjoy your lie in?”
Darren laughed, “Yes mate. Cheers.”
The sound of the chainsaw ripped through the air as Mike half ran, half hopped up the path with his best lunatic face on.
“Idiot,” said Dave. “Right, let’s get on with it, eh.”
The newly dug plot didn’t have any flowers on it. No wreaths. No stuffed toys. No neatly written cards. There was only the fresh, rich soil, crawling with creatures trying to find their way back into the darkness where they felt safe. There was nothing else. Except the headstone.