The Last Christmas Tree (2)
The pet shop was on the corner of a lane, about a hundred yards along on the left – which would mean going right through the thick of the crowd. Thankfully, there was another way to get there – longer, but quieter. Annie walked along the front of the Square and turned up a side street, which went around the block and brought her to the pet shop from the other end. She picked up Tipsy’s food – the special packet for senior cats – adding a catnip mouse for a Christmas treat for him. Outside again, she headed back the way she’d come – the sounds of the crowds echoing along behind her. The giggling of children. The calls of the traders. Then the flute again, high and clear on the winter air. The tune was different now, though – something a little less well-known. A gentle, lilting melody, which rose by a series of bright, hopeful notes until it reached the top of the scale. There, it changed key and came down again – slower and more melancholy this time… those phrases suggesting a promise that was never quite fulfilled. And so it went on, rising and falling, weaving its way out of the hubbub like a thread of silver. At first, Annie heard it as simply that: a sweet, high sound in the air, like birdsong. Such a pretty tune, she thought, despite its wistfulness. Although maybe that was what it was she liked about it. But then, as she walked along, the tune began to work itself further into her head – the joyful build, the pensive resolution, then the whole cycle starting again. She found herself humming it easily, anticipating each new note, until all the other sounds faded out of her consciousness. It was so familiar, somehow. It seemed…
She stopped – so suddenly that somebody walking behind her had to step quickly aside to avoid bumping into her. She didn’t even notice. It was as if she was standing alone in the middle of a dream, aware of nothing except that melody. She felt each note of it resonate through her heart. She realised now that she knew it so very well. But from such a long time ago. So long that she’d almost completely forgotten it – never expecting to hear it again.
She turned and looked back along the lane towards Fore Street. It was like looking towards the outside world from the depths of a tunnel. She could see the crowds jostling past, the bright colours, the sky opening out above the roofs of the shops. She told herself that she could just carry on and go around the Square and cross over to the bridge and not have to go anywhere near it at all. But something had changed now. She needed to know.
She made her way back past the pet shop and out into the flow of people, parting her way through, the tune drawing her like a charm. The library was across the street and along – an ornate, imposing building, almost like a church with its sweeping steps and arched entrance. She headed towards it, keeping as straight a path as possible. But at each step, there seemed to be a new obstacle. The juggler, in a Harlequin costume and belled hat, was suddenly there – juggling with apples now, one of which he was taking bites from, stepping forwards and backwards and sideways in his effort to keep things going. As Annie managed to get past him, the Father Christmas came by, trailed by a dozen or so boisterous children. She stopped to look for a way around them, and then found herself hemmed in by a queue of people waiting at a hot chestnut stall. Turning again, Annie side-stepped the queue and walked around the stall – straight into the path of a large, duffle-coated man pushing the barrel organ along, the sound of it suddenly loud in Annie’s ears. She stopped again, breathless and confused now. Whichever way she turned, people seemed to be looming up and clamouring in, almost as if she was invisible. It was then that she noticed that the tune had stopped. The flute-player – whom she’d certainly been getting closer to – had finished playing. Not simply changed to another tune, but stopped altogether. She looked over in the direction of the library, listening for the music to start up again – willing it to. But there was nothing now – just the voices and the cries and the laughter, and the clanging of the barrel organ as the duffle-coated man trundled it further along the street.
Taking a deep breath, Annie moved out into the crowds again, finding her way through without too many obstacles this time. But when she finally reached the library steps, the flute-player was nowhere to be seen. She turned and looked through the bubbling current of faces – searching for a glimpse of red frizz, or a rainbow jumper, listening all the time for the piping notes of the flute to start up again, so she could follow them. But nothing.
She walked over to the bench by the library wall, where she sat herself down, sighing. She stared at the pavement a moment, trying to recover that tune in her head again – running through the notes, but never getting it exactly right. Not like the flute-player had. Dah-de-dee-de-daa, it went. But no… that wasn’t quite it. That first note was longer. Daah-de-dee… She shook her head, annoyed with herself. How could she forget so quickly? She’d once known it note for note. It was something that Jack used to whistle, all the time – while he was out in the garden, or standing at the sink in the old back kitchen, rinsing his hands under the tap before dinner, or as he sat whittling his pieces of wood in the evenings. She’d asked him once, after she’d heard it a few times, what it was called. She remembered the whimsical look on his face as he thought.
“Bless me, you know, love… but I ain’t got the darndest. Don’t even know where I got it from, now. Wherever ‘twas, I must’ve liked it, though.”
She smiled at the memory. How she’d loved to have known what it was called. She looked up then and gazed around once again at the dash and scuffle and hurly-burly of the Christmas street. All those faces… and not a single one that she recognised, either. Funny, she thought. There was a time, a few years ago, when she’d have known everyone passing by – at least by sight. But the town had changed so much over the years. Many new people had moved in from all over, and many old faces had disappeared. Not a single familiar face in the whole swirl of it. And that, and the fact that everyone seemed to be with someone else, and the remembrance of Jack that the tune had brought up – if such a remembrance was ever needed – made her suddenly feel very alone. The excitement around her, as nice as it was, gave her no comfort. She stood again and adjusted her scarf. It was time to get home. Back to peace and familiar things. She threaded her way along the pavement, towards the Square – bits of the tune still niggling at her… daah-de-de-de-dah…
Which was when she saw the Christmas tree. Or rather, she didn’t see it. So caught up was she in her thoughts that she wasn’t even aware of the tree. until – as she was going past Jim Irish’s greengrocery on the corner of Turnery Lane – she felt something snag on the tail-end of her scarf. She looked down then, and there it was, sitting in its tub outside the door. She bent down and unhooked the branch, which sprang back, loosening off a few needles that the tree could hardly afford to lose.
“Now, you’re a sorry specimen, aren’t you,” she muttered. It wasn’t much bigger than her fern indoors, which could fit on the corner of the sideboard quite comfortably and not get in the way. Unlike the fern, though, the tree was spindly, not the best shape for a proper Christmas tree, and some of the branches looked like they’d been caught up on plenty of other coats and scarves over the days. She stopped, though, and stood back to look at it. A bit like herself in the crowd, she thought: a lone figure, and a little out of place. Without really thinking, she took hold of the price tag and turned it over.
“It’s yours if you want it, Mrs Hannaford. Free, gratis and no charge to you.”
Annie was startled by the voice. Jim Irish was standing at the door of the shop, a sack of potatoes clutched against his chest, his face beaming at her over the top. Annie grinned as something daft occurred to her: he looked like he was dancing with the sack.
“I’ll be glad to see it gone. Last one left and nobody wants ‘un. Can’t say as I blame anyone, mind – though I’ve put the price down twice.”
Annie looked down at the tree again.
“Be honest, I don’t bother with a tree now, Jim,” she said. “A’n’t done for years. Don’t hardly seem worth it for me on me own.”
Jim put the sack down and put his hands in his pockets.
“Well… it’s yours if you wan’ it. If you don’t, it’ll probably go in the skip tonight. Getting too bashed up. Can’t see anyone takin’ it now.”
Annie tutted to herself. She didn’t like being put on the spot like this. She didn’t really want the tree. But she didn’t like the thought of its being thrown away, either – especially as it still had its root. She looked at the price tag again: the crossings out, the pencilled ‘£2’, the grower’s name and address printed underneath in green biro. For the second time that day, she caught her breath.
“Memory Cross,” she said, quietly.
Jim, who was opening the sack of potatoes, looked up. “S’right,” he said. “Gets all mine from up there. Chap got a ten-acre plot of ‘em. All organic, too. You know it?”
“I’ll say I do,” she said. “Lived there for forty-three year. I was born there.” Then a smile spread across her face. “And don’t ask how long ago, Jim, ‘cos I can’t remember.”
He grinned. “The Memory bit didn’t help you much, then.”
Despite herself, she laughed. When was the last time she’d done that?
“Well,” Jim said, brushing dust from the front of his fleece, “Sounds like no question in the matter now. The two of you probably got things to catch up on.”
He was right, she thought. There was no question now. Except one.
“I’ll never be able to carry it home,” she said.
He scratched the back of his head. “Whereabouts are you?”
“Just over the bridge and up the hill a bit. But…”
“That’s alright,” he said. “I’m going up that way delivering in a minute. I can drop you off if you like.”
She was on the spot again. She hated being a nuisance.
“I wouldn’t want to put you out.”
He shook his head. “You’d be doing me a favour, dear,” he said. “And I know it’s going to a good home, too.”
That was it. Settled.
“Then I’ll have to insist on paying,” Annie said.
Jim held up his thumb. “Done. Now you wait there an’ I’ll get the van.”
(to be continued)