The Path From Tree Hill (4/5)
Continued from Part 3: The Path From Tree Hill (3/5) | ABCtales
It seemed to get colder as the gradient of the slope increased. The sky was clouding over, though the grey promised rain rather than snow. Still, there was a crispness to the air and I could see my breath curling away from me. I smelled the tang of hard winter earth, and the harsh caw of a rook cut through the silence. Up ahead, bare branches watched our approach.
We were about fifty yards from the tree when Lena said, ‘I suppose I should have asked if you were all right coming up here. I see it every day, so it’s different for me. I’ve always chosen to remember the fun we had rather than anything else. Do you remember playing Robin Hood? Kit was Robin, of course, and you were Maid Marian and I always had to be the Sheriff of Nottingham. You said I couldn’t be Maid Marian because Robin and Maid Marian were in love and Kit and I couldn’t be in love because we were brother and sister, but it was all right for you and Kit because you were cousins.’ She smiled. ‘You could be very bossy when you were little.’
‘Maybe I felt I had to be, because there were two of you and only one of me.’
We were at the tree.
Lena rubbed her gloved hand against the ridges of the trunk. ‘Mummy never came up here afterwards, but Daddy came up quite a lot. Towards the end of his life he used to say he’d hoped that if he kept coming he’d work it out. He’d know why.’
She started a slow circuit of the massive trunk as I looked back at the Manor, and the line of bedroom windows staring at the hill.
‘Why do you stay?’ I asked. ‘There’s so much upkeep. You’d get a fortune for the place.’
Her voice came from behind the tree. ‘I thought about it, after Mummy died. She never wanted to leave, despite the fact she couldn’t face coming up here. I suppose it was the link with Kit. She never changed his room. I only did after she died and I started taking in the guests.’ She completed her circuit. ‘Funnily enough, Maisie Leatherwick said the same thing.’
‘I thought she’d moved away.’
‘Yes, but she kept in touch, and she came back for Mummy’s funeral.’ Lena shook her head. ‘That seems to be how people of our age meet up these days. We’ve done the matches and hatches, now it’s all dispatches.’ She slid her arm through mine. ‘That’s why I was so pleased you came. I didn’t want to leave it until the dispatch.’
‘No,’ I said. My arm felt heavy and awkward trapped by hers.
‘Anyway, Maisie thinks I should move. She came up for another funeral a couple of months ago, and she popped round before she left. We had a good long chat. It was nice. She’s married, of course, got grandchildren now. Turns out she was probably closer to Kit than anyone. Closer than I was, at least.’ She tugged at my arm. ‘Come on, we’d better be getting back. I should probably be doing something to the turkey.’
We walked down the hill, the tree clawing the sky behind us.
She wouldn’t let me help with the food, so I sat in the armchair looking at the Christmas tree so carefully recreated from our childhood, until she bustled in with two full sherry glasses on a tray. ‘Second presents!’
Lena’s second present to me was a framed picture of us all in front of an almost identical Christmas tree. Me, Lena, Kit, our parents and maternal grandparents, and our Aunt Stella and Uncle Robert, who didn’t have any children.
Lena looked at it fondly. ‘Daddy with his tripod and his timer, do you remember? He had a real thing for photography at one point, developed the pictures and everything. He took over the second bathroom - Mummy was furious. He tried to get Kit interested but it was probably a bit too technical for Kit. He was more of a thinker and dreamer, wasn’t he?’
‘Do you want your other present now?’ I asked. ‘Or do you want to leave it for after lunch?’
She decided to wait.
The lunch – it had always been Christmas lunch, never Christmas dinner - was nice, and lots of it. There was a bottle of champagne with the starter of smoked salmon and prawns, and a choice of another Pinot or an oaked Chardonnay with the mains.
‘I had no idea you were such a bon viveur,’ I said. ‘These roast potatoes are lovely.’
She looked pleased. ‘Mummy’s recipe, if you can have a recipe for roast potatoes. Maris Pipers and goose fat. The wine’s from a place in York. I went in and asked them what would be best.’ She sighed contentedly. ‘It’s nice to have someone to enjoy the food with. Mummy never ate much over the last few years. But then, you always did have a good appetite. Granny used to say you and Kit were chips off Grandpa’s block. Funny though, Christmas lunch was never Kit’s favourite. He ate like a pig the rest of the year, but he never had a lot at Christmas. Seemed to lose his appetite. It was odd. Let’s take our coffee through. Shall we have some port?’
We opened our final presents. Mine to Lena was a hardback copy of the new Ian Rankin novel, because I vaguely recalled her saying, at some point, how much she enjoyed him.
‘Don’t worry if you’ve got it,’ I said. ‘I’ll have it, and you can choose something else.’
‘No, no,’ she insisted. ‘That’s lovely. Very thoughtful of you. It reminds me of being a kid. We always got at least one book each, do you remember?’
Lena’s present to me was also a book, a history of Haizby, called The Tree Hill Village Through The Ages.
‘It’s a lovely book,’ she said. ‘Some wonderful photographs. The author’s a local chap. I’ve got a copy and I thought you might like one, to remind you of happy days.’
‘Thank you,’ I said.
I flicked through my book and she flicked through hers.
‘Charades?’ she said.
We made an effort for about half an hour. Then Lena went to fetch more coffee and port, and I got up and stood by the French windows, looking out at Tree Hill.