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Authors: Judy Pascoe

The Tree

BOOK: The Tree
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THE
TREE

JUDY PASCOE

First published in 2002 in the United Kingdom by Viking, an imprint of Penguin UK, and in Australia by Penguin Australia, as
Our Father Who Art in the Tree

This edition published in Australia in 2010 by Pier 9, an imprint of Murdoch Books Pty Limited

Murdoch Books Australia
83 Alexander Street
Crows Nest NSW 2065
Phone: 
+61 (0) 2 8425 0100
Fax: +61 (0) 2 9906 2218
www.murdochbooks.com.au
[email protected]

Cover photography: Baruch Rafic
Poster artwork: Jeremy Saunders
Cover design: The Penguin Empire
Text design: Penguin Books

Text © Judy Pascoe 2002, 2010
The moral right of the author has been asserted.

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording or otherwise, without the prior written permission of the publisher.

National Library of Australia Cataloguing-in-Publication entry

Author: Pascoe, Judy.

Title: The tree [electronic resource] / Judy Pascoe.

eISBN: 9781742662428

Subjects: Fathers and daughters--Fiction.
Paternal deprivation--Fiction.
Fatherless families--Fiction.
Fathers--Death--Fiction.
Grief--Fiction.
Girls--Fiction.

Dewey Number: A823.4

For my father

A
CKNOWLEDGEMENTS

Just a few names of people who have helped along the way. David Godwin, my literary agent, and everyone at DGA who worked on the first edition of the book and helped it to be published all over the world. Kirsty McLachlan, who handled the film rights. Michael Hamlyn and Kate Dennis, who collaborated with me on an original screenplay of the story before it became a book. Sue Taylor, the producer of
The Tree
. My friends and family. Thank you.

1

It was simple for me: the saints were in heaven, and guardian angels had extendable wings like Batman, and my dad had died and gone to live in the tree in the back yard.

Weeks he'd been calling out, imitating the way I called over the back fence to my friend Megan. I didn't get the joke though; there was my dead father trying to get my attention and talk to me in a way I might understand, and every evening was the same. I thundered up the garden past the tree, and sped up the back stairs humming a mad tune all the way, trying to block out his voice.

The first time I heard him call was the evening after we'd been to the cemetery. I'd stood at his grave and watched the ants crawling across the dry earth, their pinhole nests perforated the red soil. It was too scary, I'd said to myself; meaning the ants.

‘Don't worry about the ants.' That's what I heard him say.

I replied in my own mind. ‘They're everywhere, why are there so many?' Meaning, ‘Is that you I'm talking to?'

‘They're busy,' he's said. ‘Yes, it's me.'

I hated thinking of him underground. I'd dreamt one night he pulled a rope and a light turned on in his dark coffin. The dream was a cross-section of earth. There was a thin green line of grass then a weight of brown earth, then my father lying in the coffin with a bare bulb by his head, illuminating the box.

That afternoon I stood at the back fence. Between me and the house was the great tree, enormous and dark with hanging branches dipping so low they brushed the carpet of coarse couch grass. It loomed above me, looking down on me like a giant. A circle of leaves at the top of the tree moved.

I bolted across the grass on my pin thin legs, holding my breath and running like billy-o past the tree. I could hear it calling to me in much the same way I called to Megan when I lamented by the dry paling fence.

‘Me-gan,' I would call, dragging the word out for up to fifteen seconds, it drove the neighbours mad. Mrs Johnson, who lived on the other side of the tree, protested to my mother.

‘Does she have to call out like that? Sounds like a wounded animal.'

‘Me-ga-n,' I called the second time. Starting with ‘Me', then sliding down a note to ‘gan', dragging out the ‘n', annoying the suburb with my migrating goose call.

The tree calls, ‘Simone', with the emphasis on the ‘on'. The second time it calls, it extends the ‘on', as I do with Megan's ‘gan', much longer than I think it needs to, trying to get my attention. The third more desperate plea always comes as I reach the back stairs and it lasts all the way up the twenty-two steps until I have slammed the back door too hard.

I flop down at the kitchen table. My mother's back presents itself as her front, married as it is to the electric frying pan. Although, in the last three months she has barely cooked and it's been my brother's back I've become more familiar with. Her pores widen in the heat from the sizzling meat.

Three festering grins in various states of disinterest watch as I sit at the kitchen table. Christ hanging from what appears to me like a great plus sign looks down on me, the eternal victim, and the orange seersucker tablecloth mixes with the fluorescence of the bar light above to colour my tanned skin tobacco yellow.

Much later, after fifty spelling words revised half-heartedly at the kitchen table in the pools of dampness left after it had been wiped clean by Edward, my eldest brother, I put myself to bed.

‘Simone. Simone,' the tree wailed, its voice whispering through the fly screens.

I eventually flung back my bed covers and dashed across the floor to my brother's bed, ramming an elbow into his side and pushing him in his sleep closer to the wall to make room for me.

The tree was quiet for some minutes and I lay watching the space in my empty bed where I should have been sleeping. If the tree was going to attack tonight, I was ready. As long as my mother didn't come to say good night and find my bed empty, I could stay safe in my brother's bed. And if it did push into the room, I would grab the chair by the side of the bed, tossing the pile of toys and clothes to one side. Like a shield I would use it to protect me and my little brother from its clutches. At the door I would pitch the chair at the licking tentacles. I imagined its attack would be like an octopus. I'd slam the door shut and run for it.

‘Simone.' The voice of the tree rose from the darkness. I hummed to myself to try and block out the lament.

Through the stud walls I heard voices conferring; gentle murmurings and the reassurance of Mr Reardon. And imagined his chocolate-brown eyes unblinking as he watched my mother weep. The dark timbre of his voice rose from a bass line of shuffling papers.

I had seen my mother standing on the kitchen chair after dinner. I looked up from my spelling homework to see my mother's calf muscles flexed as she stood on the chair and stretched to reach the shelf on the top of the hall cupboard. Mr Reardon was the accountant for the church and now he shuffled the papers that lived in the shoebox from Edward's size fourteen and a half black school shoes. I heard the rise and fall of their voices. My mother sobbing, Mr Reardon consoling, then more shuffling of papers. The scratching of a pen on paper, then the voices moving to the front door. The closing of the glass heavy door. Then the light feet of my mother, the dragging of a kitchen chair across the tiles and the shoebox being lifted back into place.

Gerard sniffled in his sleep and his arm thrashed out. I was thrust out of bed as he rolled over to take up the space he had previously occupied. He had no idea, I thought, as I crawled across the floor to my bed, watching him sleeping with his teddy, waiting for school to start. He'd find out then you couldn't spend all day playing.

Outside the tree frogs belched and I made a dash for my bed, jumping the last bit. I pulled the covers up and put a pillow over my head and attempted to sleep but my mother's tears were too loud to ignore. I tried to block them out. ‘Hello, catholic, sitting on a log.' I repeated the stupid phrase I had heard the children from the state school shout out at me. They hid behind the grasshopper-infested hibiscus tree growing out of a black tyre on Mr Beatty's footpath, and tortured me with the meaningless phrase that I now sang over and over to try and banish the sound of my mother's tears and my father's dirge from the tree outside, which had quietened now to a wheezing breath. There was no rest to be had in my bed.

I pushed the door to my mother's room open. I felt the weight of her pain in the walls and in the cupboards. The furniture was full of it. There was a heat from her tears. My mother jumped when she saw me, then she opened her arms.

‘I'm sorry, love, I'm crying again.'

‘I know,' I said, accepting the hug.

‘I'll stop. I'm sorry.'

It wasn't the right time to tell her that Dad was in the tree outside. When would I find the correct moment to let her know that she could go and talk to him, if she wanted to?

2

‘Megan,' came a call came from the laundry door. ‘Come in now.' The voice waited for dissent, but received none.

‘Coming,' Megan called back to her mother, and jumped down from the huge carriage-like swing we were sitting on. It tipped back unexpectedly giving me an eyeful of upside-down sky. There was a scalloped edge of orange cloud in the west pinpointed with a bright white light.

‘Evening star! Saw it first,' I said, landing beside Megan.

‘You win,' she said, skipping down the cement path that led to her laundry door.

Over the fence at the Lucases' house the light above the stairs switched on and Mr Lucas swung out of his back door. He strolled down the steps, stopped for a moment to consider the evening light, then turned on the garden hose. Lying across the back yard it wriggled like a cut snake as the water lurched through it.

I opened the gate on the paling fence that separated my garden from Megan's. The blackened wood was spattered with curly green fungus, bleached to white by the summer sun.

The gate swung shut and the lock dropped as the purple dusk fell.

‘See you tomorrow,' I called, but Megan had already disappeared into the dark antechamber at the back of her house.

‘I've got Spelling.' I spoke to no one in particular then I turned to face the tunnel of darkness before me.

‘Simone.' I can hear my mother. The fly screen on the back door softened her voice and gave it a lilac tone.

‘Coming,' I reply.

The melody of our voices was like a lilt criss-crossing the suburb.

I prepared to run across the grass. This afternoon, though, the tree was silent, it had stopped its mournful calling. It stood guard over the house in silence. So then I knew my dad was dead, the ants had got him now, well and truly. I didn't bother to run up the yard, I walked slowly, getting used to the fact that he was no longer in the tree, maybe he never had been.

The next thing I knew I was climbing the wood ladder nailed to the base of the tree, just to make sure he really had gone. I climbed higher, there was no sign of him, still higher I went checking as I went for his occupancy, until I found myself perched on a branch at the top of the tree peering out at a dusk whisked with great spraying fans of cloud.

I'd climbed the tree a hundred times, but never beyond the fuzz of foliage now below me to this new throne, this new perch I had found ten foot further on. That last stretch had made all the difference. The extra blanket of silence that layer of tree provided blocked out the noise of the world, muffled it, so there was only the last tuft of green above me, then the sky. Now there were other sounds, other voices, and a wind through the branches in a different pitch, the beating of birds' wings and a voice coming from over my right shoulder.

‘It's taken me a while to realize where I am,' was how he started. ‘I woke up and saw your grandfather and then I realized I was dead.'

It was my dad talking. I think I nodded because it was so exciting to discover what I'd always known. If you climbed high enough in the tree in our back yard you came to another world.

‘I realized then that I'd left you all. I didn't mean to die,' he said. ‘But it's not that bad. Tell your mother I'm all right. I'll always love her.'

The world suddenly seemed perfect from where I sat. Cupped in the fork of the tree, I felt as if my father were holding me. I remembered him again, not as a dead man buried in anty soil, but as a living person. The wind filling his old gardening shirt, making it billow out from the ash-grey hair on his chest. This was a father I had already forgotten, the father who went to work and came home, who had sat in the now empty chair at the end of the table, who could swim and do maths, whose wallet was always open. I didn't hate him now so much for dying, because for the first time since he died I could remember what he was like when he was alive.

The clouds on the horizon had settled into a pattern of dots and dashes that encircled the suburb. I was starting to feel cold. It was winter now and the mornings were so icy that I kept my clothes at the end of the bed, so I could get dressed under the covers when I woke up. The sun didn't carve a path across the sky with the same intensity as it would in a few months. Then the heat that could melt the bitumen and fry your face to bright red would return and the grown-ups would be complaining about that. Right now they were whinging about the cold.

Then below, the sounds of the mortal world seeped in. Megan's father and her brothers had finished tea and were in their garage. They were lowering the model railway set with ropes and pulleys from the side wall of the corrugated garage. I could hear the transformer vibrating on the chip-board table as the train began whirring around the track, revving up the hill to a station where miniature people waited to board. In her kitchen Mrs Johnson was clattering pans and emptying the contents of a saucepan through a sieve, the steam rising to fog her glasses. Above, a line of bats flew almost silently overhead then, in the distance, a faint tinkling, milk-bottle lids strung up to keep the crows away from Mrs Pitteville's tomato plants. All the sounds conspired to distract me from hearing what my father was saying. Then there was a scream from the back steps. It was my mother, her hand pushing a face full of unkempt hair back from her forehead.

‘Oh my God!' she screamed and her feet thundered down the boards of the back stairs. The inane grins of my three brothers followed behind her. Edward, my eldest brother who was sixteen, then James, who I saw for the first time was taller than my mother, he was thirteen, then Gerard the youngest, who was five. Their grins slipped slightly from their tracks, when they saw how high I was in the tree. They looked frightened. I wasn't. Their voices were muted as they were funnelled through the dew-beaded foliage. Louder in my ear was the voice of my father telling me to stay where I was.

The fire brigade came, but their truck couldn't fit down the side of the house. Hysterical now, my mother beat on the chest of the head fireman. I'd heard their sirens coming down the hill all the way from Keperra, past the drive-in movies, past the Redemptist monastery where the old priests with ears the size of African Elephants lived, past the playing field shaped like a picture I'd seen of an amphitheatre in Greece. I'd heard their sirens, but I didn't realize they were coming to rescue me. The fire crew had to deal with my mother, swearing at the tree, at my brothers. Screaming at them first to climb the tree, then to stop, then to climb, then to stop. Getting my age wrong when they asked her; telling them I was nine, when I was ten and a quarter. Edward was below me somewhere. I heard him calling to me, not as my father had in two syllables, but in one stern word – Simone.

A ladder hooked on to the branch below. It was followed by a fireman's head.

‘Hello, love,' he said. He took my hand and I started to back down the ladder. Easily I could have done it myself, I didn't need a fireman and a ladder to help me. I had an audience below. Little figures like the people waiting on the platform of Mr King's train set, they stood in their back yards looking up. I waved down. Megan was below on her carriage-shaped swing straddling the seats like a Russian acrobat rocking the swing back and forth and waving.

‘I can get down myself,' I said.

‘Yeah, well, I'm here now,' he said, ‘and your mother's having kittens down there. So let's use the ladder.'

BOOK: The Tree
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