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The Big Oak Tree

Today the sun shines down, warming my back. The rays of light glint off windows and cars and a light breeze rustles the autumn leaves that cover the ground. I stop at the end of a street and stand there, Uno sitting obediently by my side. Just on the corner, there is a tall building, vast and empty. It does not quite fit in with the others in its street. It is much older, you see, ivy growing up the sides, clinging to the crumbling brickwork. The chimney sprouts greenery instead of smoke, and the windows were boarded up many years ago. There is a large bay window on the bottom floor, overlooking the unkempt garden. It too is boarded up, but my eyes linger on it.


In front of the decaying building, there sits a jungle of ferns and weeds, spewing out onto the pavement. Hidden beneath, there is a winding path leading up to the front door. The tall oak in the corner has gone too, leaving only a stump behind. Uno sniffs at the edge of the plot then looks up at me, questioning whether he can go and explore. Just as every other time, I shake my head at him, and he flashes those big pleading eyes at me. Patting his head, I turn away and call for him to follow. Gingerly, he leaves behind the adventures and follows.




The window is flung open, allowing the gentle breeze to carry in the smell of the flowers that bloom down below. A young girl sits on the large sill, her back to the side window, breathing in the glorious smell of summer. Her tanned legs stretch out before her, and a kitten sleeps silently in her lap. Her dark hair hangs in messy ringlets down her back, just touching the cushion she sits upon. Gazing out the window, she absentmindedly strokes the kitten’s soft fur, running it between her fingers. The sun shines on them, the whole room filled with that feeling of ease and calm that comes with a good summer’s day. Opening her book, she leafs through the pages until she finds her place. The kitten rolls in its sleep; she looks down at it. I really must choose her a name.




Crossing the road, Uno and I walk away from the abandoned house. Away from the overgrown garden, and the big bay windows. Everything has changed here. Once upon a time this street was just a lane in a sparse village. Everyone knew everyone back then. Walking through the little village meant saying hello to at least four people, now it teems with cars and no one is ever out. Or when they are, they keep their heads bent low, and their earphones blaring out noise to isolate them from everything and everyone. I remember the days when children played in the streets, laughing and shouting together, riding bicycles and running about. Back when life was simpler.


I don’t live here anymore. But sometimes me and Uno, we pay it a little visit. To remind us, though it was never truly forgotten. At over fifty, (I’m not telling you exactly how old!) I feel as good as ever. My husband and I live alone with Uno; we had no children. Dogs, yes, but no children, and definitely no cats. I try not to think about the things I’ve missed in my life, or the things I cannot change. And as we walk through the now unrecognisable streets, it’s difficult to ignore the nostalgia as it worms its way into my heart. Uno licks my hand, and we continue on.




The little girl has begun to doze, her head leaning over her open book. The sun is beginning to go down, casting shadows across the room. All is still throughout the house, only a murmur of the outdoors creeping in through the window. The kitten is awake, peering outside. Suddenly, it makes a break for the open window. It tumbles out, landing in the flowerbed below. The girl stirs amid the commotion, shouting as she jumps out after it, crushing some of her mother’s plants. I’ll pay for that later, she thinks, as she scrambles across the soil and torn petals. Her book has been flung from her lap and lies, forgotten, amongst the ruined flowers.


She can see the tip of the kitten’s tail as it investigates this new and exciting land. To the kitten, it must seem huge, a great adventure just waiting for it and all it had to do was go through the window. The girl soon catches up to it and scoops it into her arms. It squirms and wriggles but she holds on tight, ignoring the scratches that soon appear on her arms. She gets to her feet, still fighting with the kitten, trying to keep it from escaping again. As she turns, she looks across the garden.


It is then when she sees it. Hanging from the big oak tree.




We are back home now and Uno is dozing by the window. I watch him as he twitches in his sleep, wondering what he is dreaming of. I sit in my armchair with a book, but it’s more decorative than anything else. I just sit there, watching Uno and drinking my tea. It’s a herbal blend, quite unlike my normal Tetley, but I thought I may as well give it a try. Before me is a ragged multi-coloured rug, spreading from my chair to the battered TV set. There is a little end table to my right and then Alfie’s chair to the other side of it. He should be home soon.


As I begin drop off, the book falls from my hand, Uno starting as it thuds to the floor. He gets up and lies by my feet instead. The room is warm and cosy; I didn’t even need to light the fire today. Even now, the fading sun warms the whole room as I sleep, allowing the shadows to dance on the walls opposite, seeping into my restless dreams.


I stir as I hear the front door. Alfie is home. Uno jumps up and runs to greet him at the living room door. The door opens and Alfie comes in, patting Uno on the head as he leaps up at him. His warm smile greets me as I look up at him.

“You dropped your book,” he laughs.

I don’t reply, staring glassy-eyed up at him. He comes over and stops by my chair, giving me one of those looks of his. His face falls as the laughter fades into silence. He holds my face in his hands, staring deep into my soul.


Eventually he speaks. “You went back.” He doesn’t ask. He already knows.


I pull away, picking up my cold tea and stirring it, not saying anything. He doesn’t press me, but shakes his head as he leaves the room. We’ve been together over 20 years now, but I still won’t tell him everything. Nobody knows the full story. Not even me. The press did their best to squeeze out all the details but it was kept very hush hush. Eventually they got bored and all that remains now are the rumours. I guess they must have made an impression, for the house has remained empty ever since. As for me, I still return to that spot every now and then. I don’t quite know why. You would think I would want to stay away.




She is in the dining room now, sitting on a wooden chair in the corner, her legs dangling. There is dirt all over her summer dress, but nobody says anything. She swings her legs back and forth, still clutching her brand new kitten. It has settled down now, worn out from the day’s adventure. Its ginger fur sticks up all over the place, with little bits of soil spattered across its coat. Its pink paw pads are grubby and rubbing off on her lap, but she doesn’t notice. No one will tell her off today, anyway. It looks up at her with its big green eyes. There are adults talking all around her. She doesn’t know many of them. They bustle about and talk in hushed voices. Every now and then one of them glances at her or nods in her direction. Nana is there somewhere but she can’t see her. She was told to sit tight and look after her kitty. I think I will name her Petal.




I am back, but this time I’m alone. Alfie begged me not to go. He told me that this was it. He couldn’t take it anymore. He didn’t mean it; he just wants to help. Sometimes I wish he knew; other times I’m glad he remains innocent to it. I stand, looking up at the ominous house in all its decay. They are going to knock it down. It has become so dilapidated that it’s now a danger to passers by – that’s what the article in the paper said.


I remember the day we moved in. It was such a magnificent house. Old even then, but with such a charm about it. Some houses have a spirit to them, a personality. This was one of those houses. It had such magnificent rooms, with beams, fireplaces, and big window seats. It was the perfect place for hide and seek. And the garden! Lush grass and flowers sprouting from every corner. Bushes and trees, an abundance of wildlife. We had moved there just after my father died. It was cheap despite its size; apparently nobody wanted it, though I don’t know why. It was the most splendid house I had ever seen. One summer – I was perhaps six or seven at the time – I had taken an interest in insects of all kinds. I would spend every day out searching the garden to add to my collection. Oh those were the days! Warm summers, not a care in the world. By the time I was to return to school, I had such a collection, though not long after they all died, as my childlike mind wandered to new things.


I don’t know how long I stand there for. Memories flood my mind. Every one of them so happy. Summer days in the garden, playing with the other children and the fair that came every year. The teacups that whizzed us round and the sweet taste of candy floss. When the rain pelted the roof and echoed through the house – running around catching the leaks in buckets when it was really heavy. And in winter, the snow that turned the garden into a winter wonderland. The trees would hang low with the weight of it, and we would go on long walks with our wellingtons and big coats. Every memory I recall feels forced. I see only the ones I want to remember.


The sky has turned dark, a cold I never noticed before slices through me. I shiver as the rain begins to fall, the leaves are beginning to turn soggy, clogging up the gutters. A car pulls up behind me, but I don’t notice. Not until the door swings open and footsteps come towards me. It’s Alfie. He puts his hands on my shoulders and guides me towards the passenger door. I let him take me away.




She sits in the back of a car. Who it belongs to she has no idea, who is sitting in the driver’s seat, she doesn’t know. She just sits there, her head leaning against the cold window. She had been told to put her things into the boxes that now sit in the boot of the car. She couldn’t take everything, just what was important. Nana is sitting next to her, silently weeping into an old handkerchief. She had tried to hold the little girls hand but she pulled away and started staring out of the window, her chin resting on her arm. She hadn’t said a word since. Once the police left, she wandered the garden listlessly for hours. People would try to talk to her, but she never once replied. Instead, she would stare at them expressionless until they gave up and let her be.


Now they were leaving. Leaving the house and the memories behind. As they pulled away she saw the kitten leap playfully beneath the big oak tree, not a care in the world.




As we drive away, I begin to recall the other memories. The ones I pushed from my mind all those years ago. Once they start, they don’t stop. Memory after memory floods into my head, overlapping each other, confused and disorientated. They begin to morph, old memories blurring with ones I never knew I had.


The day we moved in. The house towering above us, large and quiet, empty. Playing alone in the garden, but a sense of someone watching me. The looks from the neighbours as they hurried by, no friendly greetings like in our old village. They were scared. The noises at night, clunks and rattlings. The explosive sound of quiet that enveloped every room in the daytime. The sounds of sobbing that echoed through the walls each night, and the shivering fear of why. My mother. The fear in her eyes. The pain. Her descent into despair as her own heart consumed her. Her ghostlike figure gliding through the empty rooms, a duster in hand. The loneliness and isolation. Confusion.


The day I left the dilapidated house, with its big eerie rooms and echoing corridors – not the magnificent one I had always pictured it as. Shadows cast themselves across the old memories, and suddenly I see the truth. The truth that I had blocked out so many years ago. And, finally, the day I was given the kitten.




“Here you are, darling. Some company for you.”


A woman and a child sit in the overgrown garden. The woman sits on her knees, an apron tied round her waist. The little girl sits cross-legged, hands fidgeting in her lap. The woman hands her a cardboard box. She takes it in trembling hands. Placing it on the ground, she hears a squeak from within. Slowly, she lifts the lid, and peers inside. The girl lets out a squeal of delight. She jumps up at the startled woman, hugging her around the neck. The woman hugs her close, a ghostly expression crossing her face. The girl then lifts a small bundle of fur from inside the box and holds it to close to her chest. The house looms over them as they sit together in the big garden. The sun shines, but clouds threaten up above. Mother and daughter sit together for the first time in years. It is silent, except for the squeaking from the kitten that scampers about their laps.


The lane is quiet, almost too quiet. The fair is in town today, drawing all the villagers to the square. All but these two. They had never ventured far from their house. People talk, rumours fly about the town. The mother and daughter who had suddenly taken up the empty house. They got a cheap price, people say, nobody else was going to take it. Before them, it stood empty ever since the mysterious tragedy years before. No one had wanted it, it is unlucky, people say, Cursed. But here they are. Sitting together on the overgrown lawn.


Time passes, and eventually her mother sends the little girl inside, leaving her alone in the grass. The little girl makes her way back up the path to the house, the kitten clutched in her arms. Looking down at it, she smiles. What should I name you?




It was that same day. I remember sitting in the garden, the sun too bright, the air too still. Later on, as I sat on my cushion on the window seat, the window flung open to the summer, the kitten made its escape and I followed it into the garden. Crushing mother’s flowers, and dirtying my dress, I scrambled closer to what awaited me in the garden.


My mother hanging from the big oak tree.


I didn’t shout. I didn’t cry. When the police arrived, I was sitting amongst the long grass and the dandelions, playing with my kitten. They took me inside and still, I did not cry. They asked me if I understood, I nodded. After hours of waiting, they bundled me into a car with Nana and I left the house and the garden and my mother and my kitten behind forever.


The big oak tree was cut down. The house fell into further disrepair. The garden turned into a jungle, mother’s flowers lost among the weeds. I spent my days trying to forget. I moved away and didn’t return for many years. Then, when I married Aflie, and we bought a little cottage in a neighbouring village, certain memories came back to me. I began searching for my old house, searching for the truth. For the oak tree and the garden. For my mother.


And now, forty years later, the house – my house and my garden – will be demolished, and I will never be able to return. What remains of the big oak tree will disappear. But my memories will stay with me. And the questions of what really happened will remain unanswered.


As I stand before my ramshackle house, and the stump of the big oak tree, a tear finally trickles down my cheek.


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