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November 23rd, 2020

Bygone Trees

A dog with one brown paw, from an uncovered paint can into which it fell as a puppy, tumbled head over tail, forever it seemed down the small hill where the rest of the family stood above, admiring the ancient view. The childfully named Spot had been redubbed after the accident which had left him dripping with brilliant, titanium white paint. Despite a severe verbal and aquatic scrubbing, there remained a residue that somehow worked its way into the pup’s pores, dying the follicles forevermore, so that only the single foot of bright chestnut remained, the rest, pure as a winter sky. So was born the canine Achilles, a story told by the mother to the adoration of the kids who fell in love with the mystical mythical dog that yapped and snuffled, none the wiser to his nominal upgrade, or the weight that came with it. Down the hillside went Achilles, or Lili as he came to be known after the hard ‘ch’ sound proved a little difficult for still-forming mouths. Down he went, rolling and grunting with unadorned glee, grinning and laughing as only a dog can, throwing himself, with all the medium size he could muster into every bounding flop, until he reached the bottom of the slope, righted himself, and went galloping up to the top for another spin. ‘Lili, stop that,’ came her master’s voice, without anger, ‘Lili, no you’ll get covered in mud.’ And so he was, already, and quickly turning deeper and darker shades of caramel. Slowly he was using the great tawny brush of the hillside to paint his pristine canvas, and he was loving every second of it. ‘Lili…’ The others weren’t paying much attention as she went halfway down to meet the dog as it came up for another game, eyes alive with the thrill of seeing the world go round and round as he went down and down. ‘You daft dog,’ smiled HMV, giving his head and neck a vigorous scratch, reluctance to get dirty hands overpowered by the love of the mucky pup that looked up at her, adoration flowing through every fibre of his wildly flicking tail. ‘Come along.’ A higher voice and the two went up the hill together to hear what had to be heard about that which could be seen or not seen from where they were and elsewhere, now and in the past, and sometimes in the future too. The lecture was delivered by Pater Dolor, who took it upon himself, in moments such as these, to educate the populous on matters of history and geography pertaining to specific aspects of local landscape, mostly prominently, trees that weren’t there anymore. ‘And that there, the space you can see just beyond the village, that was a great oak that came down with half the chimneys in the hurricane.’ A strong word for the severe blustering that collapsed a total of two chimneys, but did bring down the old tree, which was in its dwindling years having been acorned by the passing of a Norman army tramping the forest floor into a fertile mulch, on their way to London. ‘Between that space and the old tower there you can see the new forest planted in the 70s as part of the the Green Skies Initiative.’ ‘Fat lot of good that did,’ said another and they all murmured in agreement. ‘Disgraceful what they’re doing in Middle Petheringham.’ More murmurs. ‘What’s the use planting here when they’ve got all that running day and night through the week.’ ‘Hypocrisy.’ ‘Hypocrisy is the least of it. It’s pure stupidity.’ ‘Quite, quite.’ Achilles stood by now, with the rest, listening little and caring less. What did it matter when and where and least of all why the grass was green, the trees fell down, the river dried up, the fields flooded, the crops grew, the cattle starved. Wasn’t it enough that a branch would fall once in a while and be flung, spinning, till it landed with a bounce in the heather? ‘Did you hear they’re planning something similar out the other side of Bleasewood?’ ‘Oh, don’t.’ ‘Yes, another six or seven I believe.’ Pater Dolor spoke in a grave tone, ‘Nine.’ ‘Nine? Really?’ They all clucked. ‘Really, as many as nine?’ ‘Good grief.’ ‘Good gracious.’ Small prayers to a Sunday Lord and they shook their pitying heads. Counter-arguments and offensive proposals were already forming in the deep desk drawers at home, where they would sit up in bed till long past sundown, swatting up on local planning regulations. ‘Is there really nothing to be done?’ ‘I’m afraid not.’ Meanwhile, Achilles had eaten a butterfly, looping too close to the sun, thereby saving the Tropics for another sweltering evening, and causing a tummy upset that he’d regurgitate in the night. The odd folk discussed their sympathies and their confusion, their desire for discretion and their distaste for diversification. It’ll come to nothing, said one, but they were all gritting their teeth to the future hard-fought battles in their minds’ eyes. Sticks out, they struck across the ridge, HMV and the pup in tow, arms pumping to keep hard hearts from resting, hard minds at work with the news from Pater Dolor and his grave tone. At the back of the troupe two were whispering, their eyes darting back and forth, from each other to the bobbing heads of the small-council ahead of them. ‘Did you hear about Sandra?’ one murmured. ‘No, nothing,’ the other replied. ‘Then I’ll tell you,’ confided the first. ‘Tell me, do,’ the other replied. ‘You know she had her sons round.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And the younger one has a little girl now.’ ‘Yes, Christina.’ ‘Christina, yes.’ ‘Yes, what happened?’ ‘Well, I’ll tell you.’ ‘Do.’ ‘Sandra had a table set up outside.’ ‘Her white one?’ ‘Yes, the metal one.’ ‘The round one?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘What happened?’ ‘Well they were all out having tea.’ ‘Sandra and the boys?’ ‘Well, that’s just it, the boys had gone inside and Sandra was tidying away the tea.’ ‘What happened?’ ‘Well, didn’t little Christina go up the hazelnut.’ ‘The one by the wall?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Where they took that branch down last year?’ ‘That’s the one.’ ‘What happened?’ ‘Well, didn’t Christina fall from the tree.’ ‘No. Is she alright.’ ‘She’s alright, don’t worry, barely a scratch on her.’ ‘Thank God.’ ‘But then the son turns around to Sandra.’ ‘The one with the daughter.’ ‘Yes, Christina’s dad.’ ‘Yes.’ ‘And he says, you’ll be bringing that down then?’ ‘He didn’t.’ ‘Oh yes, bold as anything.’ ‘Because she fell?’ ‘Because his little darling daughter fell about two feet and bumped her elbow, yes.’ ‘Gosh.’ ‘I know.’ ‘And?’ ‘Well she doesn’t know, I mean, how can she?’ ‘How can she?’ ‘You saw her there nodding along, agreeing with everything.’ ‘And yet, secretly.’ ‘Secretly, who knows…’ ‘Gosh.’ ‘I know.’

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