by Mike Fox
No-one knew how long the tree had been there, the living memory of the village being no more than a cluster of growth rings to an oak of that circumference. What was known, however, was that John, with his scrambled features and dignified, ancient jacket, had been going to sit beneath its branches since he was first old enough to wander off and amuse himself. At that time it had stood on the perimeter of farmland, near the bottom of a sloping arable field. Every spring the farmer left detour-shaped plough marks round its thick, gnarled trunk and spread of roots, and anyone near enough would hear him curse it, ritually but with a certain grudging respect. Now the farmer was elderly, a widower whose only daughter had long since gone to London. The farm had retreated into a curve of acre around him, and other than a few sheep his farming days were done.
At some point, though no-one could say when, the tree became known as “John’s Oak” Eventually, in the way of local osmosis, the farmer began to call it that too. Latterly, with his duties contracted and time on his hands, he would occasionally saunter out on a summer morning with his dog, and find himself standing by the tree, peering down at John’s long, sprawling figure, shoulders hunched forward, trousers scuffed up beyond both ankles. When this happened there would usually be a brief mutual silence. It might even take a minute or so for John, pencil and notebook in hand, scribbling, frowning and crossing out, to notice.
Then, ‘How’s it going, lad?’ the old farmer might ask.
‘Don’t ever come easy,’ John might say. ‘How does this sound to you?’ And he would read a line or two of poetry.
The old farmer would stand in rumination, then produce one of his stock replies.
‘That’s quite an earful,’ he might say, nodding appreciatively. ‘But then I’m no judge.’
John would nod too, as if assimilating this insight, then say what he always said in response to feedback.
‘Got a bit of work to do on it.’
The farmer would then incline his head, make a clicking noise to his dog, and turn back along the path he had worn through the field, now thick with coarse grass, ragwort and, in high summer, poppies.
No-one ever put it into words, but it was accepted that the tree was central to John’s existence: he sat there in summer, he huddled there in winter. In autumn acorns fell on his head, and in spring birds mated not far above it. It was thought that in his entire life John had never been further than Wensbury, fewer than ten miles away, and that on just the one occasion. He had disappeared only to return a week later, thinner, dishevelled, and muttering about the danger of straying beyond your knowledge.
Over time, though he had never published anything or read in a public setting, a certain reverence, even mystique, had grown up around John’s poetry. The odd impenetrable line, offered in a preoccupied manner when someone approached him, would tell the enquirer little or nothing. But then, wasn’t poetry meant to conjure wonder? Or at least confuse you?
And it was recognised that John had always been a thinker. You could tell, the way he was given to pausing in reverie when helping to bring in the harvest, setting dry stone, or any of the other half dozen jobs he, like most of his peers, could turn his hand to. John, though, was the only poet.
The oak was not the only tree, although many believed it must be the oldest. The carpenter, cabinet maker and boat builder all worked from local timber, taking no more than was sufficient for their needs. They knew where the best ash, elm or oak grew, how to fell, rip and season it, and what tasks each species was best suited for. All were aware that John’s oak would undoubtedly yield fine timber, but it would never occur to any of them to seek the old farmer’s permission to cut it down.
Perhaps not everything in this world becomes property through a conscious process of transaction. Somehow John’s right to sit beneath the tree had grown into an unstated lease, relating to his span of life, rather than the tree’s. But when the old farmer died this was formalised. The land of the farm, its buildings and all its chattels would pass to his daughter, with the condition that John could continue to do what he’d always done.
This kindness was viewed with approval in the village. The old farmer had been a true man of the soil; stoical and pragmatic amid the fluctuating abundances and perplexities of nature. But he had recognised something different in John and honoured it.
So, for a while, nothing much changed. John continued to live with his sister, two years his junior and a formidable market gardener and seamstress, who would tell anyone who cared to listen she was glad to get her dreamy brother out of the house. The older inhabitants remembered that she’d refused her first suitor and, as can happen in small communities everywhere, no others had come along. As for John, no-one associated him with romance, in any literal sense at least.
The For Sale sign took everyone by surprise. There had been no reported visits to the farm and, as far as was known, it had just lain there since the old farmer’s passing. But after a while talk settled down.
‘They can never cram themselves back in once they’ve been away,’ the locals might remark, referring to the old farmer’s daughter. They had seen it before. Those returning after a stay of any length in the city brought back with them only restlessness and dissatisfaction.
There was another lull and then, less than two weeks after the Sold sign went up, the contractors appeared. They began to erect fences around the outer perimeter of the farm. Cattle, perhaps, the village thought. No demarcation had existed for years, leaving only a vague sense as to exactly where the farm ended and common land began. John absented himself while the area near the oak was being completed, then manoeuvred his tall, bony frame between the parallel rails of the fence and resumed his seat. For a week or so nothing was said, and neither was there any sign of the owner.
The rude sound of chainsaws, very early in the summer morning, drew Mrs Mandle to deviate from her usual route with her two beagles. When she reached the source, she witnessed the oak narrowed and stripped of its branches, an amputee with a dozen fresh, oozing stumps. A broad-shouldered man in a waxed jacket and tailored wellies stood looking on approvingly.
‘Whatever are you doing,’ Mrs Mandle, who had fairly broad shoulders herself, shouted. ‘That tree is protected.’
The man turned and looked at her genially. He had the air of one who had handled this sort of situation regularly, if mainly in a boardroom setting.
‘Not any more, I’m afraid,’ he said.
‘But there was a clear stipulation in farmer Jefferies’ will. It was public knowledge.’
‘The stipulation was addressed to farmer Jefferies’ daughter. There was no clause concerning perpetuity. I have bought the farm from her, and I have other plans for this field.’
Mrs Mandle, whose scalding stare was said to allow her to walk through a field of bulls unmolested, stared scaldingly now, but it had not the slightest effect. She turned away sharply, and her beagles, who had been waiting for a cue and who were deeply attuned to her moods, scuttled after her, tails down.
Though she’d never let it be known, Mrs Mandle had herself written poetry as a young woman. She had always been pleased by the thought that the village possessed its own folk-poet, even if he was gangling, rather smelly, and not terribly articulate. A person of decision, she immediately formulated a plan, and hurried back to the village to recruit a team to execute it.
The human shield was mobilised in less than ten minutes, but by the time its members returned to the field, the trunk of the oak lay stretched on the earth, like a whale skewered by one too many harpoons. The team and the new owner, task completed, had disappeared. Everyone stood for a moment in silent loss, although none of them would previously have recognised the extent of their personal attachment. It was hard to imagine space where the oak had been, even when that space was only a few feet away. They peered at the broad, flat stump they were left with, each feeling that the world itself was less permanent than when they woke that morning.
News got round, and the mayor made it his duty to go and have a look, shortly after a thoughtful lunch. In the past he had played with the idea of inviting John to write poems commemorating local events, and then perhaps even perform them on appropriate occasions. On reflection he had thought the risk too great. Nevertheless, he sometimes made mention of ‘our local laureate’ in his speeches, acknowledging that John’s oblique activities brought pride to the village.
As he walked through the wood leading to the field where the oak had so recently stood, he began to prepare himself for what he would see. But when he reached the clearing what he saw was not what he expected. There, less than twenty yards away, was John, sitting on the stump, resin doubtless seeping towards his backside through his trousers. Although, as ever, he was hunched over his notebook, there was something different about him. The mayor stood unnoticed, staring, then turned and discretely walked away.
‘He looks like a scarecrow, like the soul’s gone out of him,’ he muttered to himself as he beat his palm against his thigh.
But John’s pencil scratched across the page as it had always done, and his lips moved in silent invocation, like a man tossing nets of hope towards the sky, to catch whatever thoughts might still be floating there.
Mike Fox has co-authored a book and published many articles on the human repercussions of illness. Now writing fiction, his stories have appeared in journals in Britain, Ireland, America, Australia and Singapore. His story Breath, first published in Fictive Dream, was nominated for the Pushcart Prize 2019. His story The Homing Instinct, first published in Confingo, was included in Best British Short Stories 2018 (Salt). His story, The Violet Eye, is available from Nightjar Press as a limited-edition chapbook.
Learn more at www.polyscribe.co.uk or @polyscribe2.