The Last Christmas Tree (5)
Jem took the tinsel ropes and draped them around the branches while Annie hung the baubles. Outside, it was almost dusk. Across the bridge, the lights along the Square were winking and swaying in the wind.
“You’re so lucky living here,” Jem said. “I meant what I said. It’s a lovely town. There’s a special feel to it. I noticed it as soon as I arrived. Welcoming and friendly. Have you always lived here, Annie?”
“In this part of the world, yes. Been in this house nearly thirty year. But my birthplace is up along the river a way, on the edge of the moor. Tiny village called Memory Cross. Nothing more than a crossroads. Few cottages, shop, chapel, an inn, schoolhouse and a couple of farms. That’s all.”
Annie reached up and took hold of the price tag, which was still on the tree. She showed it to Jem.
“Coincidence, eh?” said Annie. “One of the reasons I got the tree in the end. Me and this feller was raised in the same soil, you might say.”
Annie went to the mantelshelf and took down a framed photograph, which she handed to Jem. It showed a village crossroads, with a few farm cottages. In the background was the looming presence of the moor – its rough hills snagging against the sky. It was a tranquil scene, showing the village as it could have been at any time in the last three-hundred years or more. A few people were standing by a gate, with a line of children sitting along the wall beside them. They were all looking at the camera.
“My mother and father,” said Annie, pointing to a couple. “And that’s me – first one on the wall. All the others was kids from the village. Just after the war that was taken. Didn’t touch us much. Most we heard of it was when they tested the air raid sirens up to the village hall.”
Jem pointed at a young boy – a bit bigger and older than the rest – sitting in his shirtsleeves beside Annie.
“Who’s the handsome lad?”
Annie twitched her nose. “Wasn’t he just. That were my Jack, bless him. Took a shine to him from day one, I did. Took a few year before he took a shine back – but he did, in the end.”
“It’s beautiful, Annie,” Jem said.
Annie nodded. “’Tis, too. Not quite the same now, of course. Busier roads, more houses. Most of them’s holiday cottages now, too. That’s what happened to our place. About the only thing hasn’t changed in that photo is the moor. That’s always the same. No one can touch that.”
Jem handed the photograph back. “What made you leave it?”
“There were reasons,” Annie sighed, putting it back. “And it’s a long time ago.”
Jem gave a small nod of understanding. Annie went to the tin again and took out the little wooden ornaments. “These are Jack’s handiwork,” she said. “He used to love carving and whittling. He made these for our first Christmas together.”
She handed Jem the Father Christmas. As Jem ran her fingers over the fine detail, Annie felt something catch in her throat. Just a moment, then it was gone.
“I can see he was a talented man,” Jem said
“Ahh, more talent than he’d care to admit to.”
Jem opened the piece of thread on the ornament and hooked it on the tree. Its smooth surface shone with the light from one of the red bulbs. She took another one and hooked that on, too.
“A lot of love and care went into these, Annie.”
“He had that in barrowloads, too,” said Annie. She hung one of the ornaments herself. The baby asleep in its cradle. “I’d have done anything for that man, you know. Given him the world in a basket and not wanted a thing in return.”
The baby’s face looked so peaceful and serene – so perfectly detailed. As Annie looked at it, the lights on the tree begin to crystallize before her. She let go of the ornament and watched it swing, holding her hand there to nudge it when it stopped. As she did so, Jem put her own hand up and gave Annie’s a gentle squeeze. Annie looked at her and she could see it there in Jem’s dark eyes. The understanding. And the longing.
Then the moment was over and they both silently stepped back and looked at the tree. For Annie, the transformation was astonishing. No longer the straggly thing that had snagged her scarf by the shop door in the busy bluster of the town. Now it looked exactly as it should, glowing in a way that seemed to be something to do with more than just the lights. Even the old tinsel twinkled brightly again, throwing glints and gleams of light against the window panes and creating twisting shadows on the curtains and wallpaper. The lights shone like gemstones, illuminating the tiny wooden figures with soft pastels of colour. The firelight, too, caught on the shiny surfaces of the baubles and went spinning out into the room, sparkling and flashing on the brass and silver and varnish and glass. It was as if the room, normally quite dull and shadowy in the fading light, had been brought to life. It made the room seem warmer, too, filling it out in a way that she’d forgotten Christmas trees could do.
“It’s beautiful,” Jem said at last.
“I’d never have believed it,” said Annie.
“Oh, I would,” said Jem, softly. “I would.” Then she nudged Annie on the arm. “Come on. Time for a tune.”
She went back to the sofa and took the flute from her bag. It was a strange-looking thing. Like a recorder, Annie thought, but longer and with a different mouthpiece. It was made of some light wood or other, and had little brown patterns – like hieroglyphs – running down the length of it. Jem noticed the look on Annie’s face.
“It’s a Native American flute,” she said. “It’s very special. I stayed on a Lakota reservation once when I was out there. It belonged to a young man in the family I was with.” She smiled sadly. “Well… the long and short, we fell in love. But he already had someone, and there was a child on the way. I didn’t want to upset that. I wasn’t ready for that kind of thing, anyway. So I had to leave. He gave me the flute as a parting gift – so I’d always have something of him with me. I used to play the penny whistle, but I won’t use anything else now. The sound is just right for me.” She fiddled with a small lever, then rubbed the mouthpiece on the edge of her jumper. “Now, Annie… how did that tune go that you mentioned?”
Annie sat back down again and cleared her throat. She hummed the first few notes as she remembered them, but Jem looked uncertain.
“That’s not it,” said Annie. “Hang on a bit. Let’s think.”
She hummed again – lower this time, and not so fast. Jem listened. Then she put the flute to her lips and, very softly, began to play.
As soon as the first note came from the flute, Tipsy did a peculiar thing. He got up from where he’d been lying by the fire and went and sat in the middle of the carpet, facing Jem, watching her intently, tipping his head from one side to the next – completely enraptured, so Annie thought. As, indeed, was she. Jem played the tune perfectly and beautifully – that sweet rising scale, then the dropping away on the sadder notes, and over, and over again. It was as though a spell was being cast in the room, getting stronger with each succeeding phrase. As it went on, tears streamed down Annie’s cheeks. Tears of both joy and sorrow. Jem played the tune completely through, but changed the key for the final run of notes, so that it ended brightly and more hopefully – that last note being held, on and on, getting gradually quieter, until Jem was out of breath.
When she finished, Annie clapped so hard that Tipsy jumped. “Lovely!” she cried. “That was it! That was it!”
Jem stood and dropped an elaborate curtsey. “Thank you,” she said. “My pleasure.”
She sat again, putting the flute on her lap.
“I learnt it years ago. Picked it up from a whistle-player in Cornwall. It’s a very old English folk tune.”
“Do you know what it’s called?”
“It’s called ‘The Parting’. It’s about two lovers. He’s going off somewhere to find his fortune, so that they can settle down and be happy. But she’s entreating him not to go, saying they can be happy anyway. The song is their final conversation at the dockside. The ‘up’ bits are him, the ‘down’ bits are her. The first few lines go something like I’ll see you again, my one true love, when my ship returns ‘cross the sea, and she replies Please tarry, my love, oh tarry a-long, for I dread to be parted from thee. But I’m afraid that’s all I can remember. I play it a lot because it reminds me of my Charlie Laughing Sky. In the song, the man doesn’t return, but I always change it when I do it and give it a happier ending. Because I have Charlie’s flute. A part of him is still with me. So he never really goes away.”
Annie’s eyes were tearful again, though she was smiling through it.
“Now I know,” she said. “And that’s so right, too. You see, my Jack used to whistle it all the time, though he never knew what it was. Jack’s tune, I used to call it. And I’d not heard it again since his time. Until today.”
Jem was also blinking her eyes now.
“Aw, just look at the two of us sentimental old things,” Annie laughed.
Jem shook her head. “Not at all. I think it’s good to talk about those we’ve lost. It helps to keep them here, in a way. Not that they ever really go, anyway. I believe that. We have a connection with them, even when they’re no longer alive. It’s like with Charlie. Just over a year after I left, he was killed in an accident on the construction site where he worked. And I knew. I felt it, the moment it happened.” She clutched her hand to her heart. “I felt it right here.”
They both sat quietly for a moment.
“You’re right,” said Annie. “It is good to talk about them. And I don’t really talk about Jack. Mainly because there’s no one to talk about him to.” She looked at Jem again, who gave her that wink of understanding.
“You can tell me about him, if you like,” she said.
“I couldn’t. It’s not fair on you, Jem. You don’t want to hear an old woman’s stories.”
“Of course I do. I’m always ready to hear someone’s story.” Jem slipped the flute back into her bag. “Providing, of course, you want to tell it.”
Annie turned to the fire and stared hard into the drowsy flames.
“I think…” she said. “I think I need another cuppa first.”
(to be continued)