All Souls’ Day, approaching dusk. Park regulars nodded greetings as their dogs sniffed around each other. Claire would probably have recognised some of them, perhaps on smiling, chatting or patting terms. Maybe even stood and exchanged doggie details.
I was out of place, an anomaly, a walker without a canine companion. A friend without a friend. Alone and lonely.
This was one of Claire’s favourite places, somewhere she brought her spaniel Jess for evening ablutions. Most mornings she was up at the crack for a leisurely stroll along the shore before taking Lily to the nursery and going to work.
Routine suited them all. Claire always called me Monday evenings for a catch-up on the weekend news, yoga on Wednesdays, coffee and cake in Southsea library Friday lunchtimes. Whilst I gallivanted around the world with a high carbon footprint, Claire, Jess and Lily explored Portsmouth. She knew it much better than I did – she’d never left. Until she did.
The playground has changed since Claire and I sat on the swings for hours – talking, talking, talking; giggling, giggling, giggling. Gone are the metal climbing frame and slide; here are ropes and zip wires for big kids, a pirate ship for the little ones. Safe but exciting.
Later, too old for play, too serious for giggles, we’d sit, backs against the great willow trunk, and still talk, talk, talk. In summer, the sun filtered through the gentle restless leaves; drooping branches prevented prying eyes. The bark was deep and rough, blue with leafy lichen; bugs sometimes crawled out of the ridges, tickling onto our bare arms.
Child time is slow; the future is misty. We lived in the moment.
Funny, now I can’t even remember what we talked about.
Darkness was crowding in when I stumbled over the fallen tree blocking the path. At first I couldn’t figure out where it had come from. There was no stump but, looking up, I realised it was a giant limb fallen from high up on our willow. Despite the onset of autumn, the canopy was still so leafy that the storm had caught and pulled the branches away, leaving a view of the sky where none had existed.
Another manifestation of climate change?
Tomorrow someone would come with a chainsaw to clear it away, maybe rope up and rise to tidy the scar. The tree was injured but it’s heart was still strong. Older than me. It would survive.
I’d gone out to think about Claire, to remember the good times, possibly summon her spirit. But this is why I was here. This is what I was meant to see.
As I finished my commemorative circuit of the park, not sure whether Claire even had a soul to be prayed for, there was a bang, a whizz, a spray of cracklings overhead.
Jess had hated the November fireworks. Claire described him whimpering behind the sofa whenever it started. Their routine had to be shifted forwards, so they were home before the worst of it.
After the funeral, after tea and buffet food in a Portchester pub, after the tears, the sympathy and commiserations, I had gone to the park.
‘What you doing?’
I twisted round to observe a small boy. ‘What’s it look like?’ I’d asked him.
‘Don’t know. Looks like you’re hugging it.’
‘Well, maybe I am,’ I suggested.
‘Why you doing that?’ The boy had asked.
‘It’s good to hug those you love. Who hugs you?’
‘My Nan. She’s always pulling me in and swamping me. But she’s soft. That tree’s rock hard, ain’t it? And it don’t hug back.’
‘That’s what you think. Come and give it a try, see what happens.’ He’d stood there, still, looking at me. ‘Come on,’ I said, ‘it won’t bite – it’s a tree.’
‘No, I’d look daft.’
‘What, like me?’ I’d said.
He laughed. ‘Yeah, like you. Bye.’ And away he ran.
I turned my attention back to the willow, broken heart weeping to stout heart, soaking up sympathy. I whispered my grief; the tree listened and comforted me.
Claire’s parents never liked dogs. When she was fourteen she was desperate for one and they finally agreed, so long as she did everything and paid for everything. Claire walked Prince every morning before school and every evening after school, and got a Saturday job in a shoe shop to buy dog food, worming pills and vet fees. It wasn’t enough.
Her parents got rid of Jess, describing it as ‘rehoming’, but they kept the child. I would have given anything to have Lily, to love and cherish her as Claire had, but it wasn’t my place. Sometimes I’d see them pushing her in her buggy round the park but, after the first encounter, always turned the other way.
‘Ground yourself in your left foot. Feel rooted through your sole into your mat and down into the earth. Visualise those roots and stand up tall. Now, place your right foot wherever it feels right for you, and lift up through your trunk. When you are balanced, raise your arms. They can spread wide like branching oak limbs if you need them to, or flow elegantly up like a silver birch but, if you feel able, bring them into prayer position above your head, like a tall poplar. And don’t forget to breathe.’
I focus on a mark on the carpet, chewing-gum pink. Playgroup glitter glimmers.
Claire always loved the glitter. Sometimes she’d giggle and wobble when we were supposed to be focused. I’ve moved to a different corner from the one we used.
What’s my treeness? A prickly holly with spiky fingers? An ancient yew growing girth with an extra ring each year? The carpet mark has gone soft-focus and I sway like a willow in the wind. Concentrate.
The seed of an idea was planted. It took time to germinate, even a bit of fire and ice, but eventually it burst and I knew what I needed to do. The climate emergency needs the city, the country, the planet to double tree cover. I need somewhere to remember, to cling to the good times like a leaf clings to the tree.
First some research. I walked down Elm Grove seeing ghosts, a memory of lost giants. I lay in the young wind-sighing copse that Claire and I had helped to plant at junior school. I drove to Kingley Vale, standing in the pagan yew grove for inspiration.
I downloaded leaflets about the trees in Victoria Park and Milton Park, then walked around looking at the wonderful world-wide specimens. Fancy finding giant Californian Wellingtonias amongst the Common Limes and London Planes in the middle of Portsmouth – living things bigger and older than anything else I might ever see. I love standing under the boughs breathing in the sweet fragrant resin of the redwood. And exotic mulberries and cedars. Risking ridicule, I even hug and chat with a few. Without Claire, I get more sense from them than I usually do from my friends and colleagues.
Perhaps an orchard? With spring blossoms it would look so pretty, smell delicious, and be abuzz with insects. In summer people could enjoy the shade. Then the harvest.
Cherries were our favourite. We’d sit with a bowl between us, eat a pound of fruit, seeing how far we could spit the stones. Claire was amazing at it.
Amongst the gold yellow green red foliage, autumn fruits of pear and plum, fig and apple, then the winter skeletons, black against the sky, perhaps with fingers of snow, a blackbird flying in trilling, flying on – oh, an orchard would be a wonderful legacy.
But where? Maybe I could find a derelict pocket of land and create a little bit of paradise.
In the meantime, there are other trees to plant. I take my credit card from my purse and pick up my phone. Claire won’t be able to appreciate the trees but her grandchildren might enjoy playing under them.
Inspiration: I came across what I thought was a fallen tree round Baffins Pond – it had barely missed the library. Fortunately it was just a large branch, but it set me thinking about the impact of trees on my life, and the climate crisis.
Pens of the Earth is about environmental tales from a positive Portsmouth – encouraging writers to celebrate existing environmental initiatives, and to imagine what might be. This year, we will also be supporting two charities, one global, one local.
Help us to support our global reforestation charity Tree Sisters and plant 2,000 trees by March 2021.
Click on the logo above to donate via Pens of the Earth’s TreeSisters page. Every £10 plants around 25 trees.
More about our plans to raise money for our local charity, WilderPortsmouth, in the coming weeks.
Learn more about Pens of the Earth: www.pensoftheearth.co.uk.
Sign up to the Pens of the Earth mailing list.
Star & Crescent are proud to support Pens of the Earth as a media partner. Stay up to date with all the Pens of the Earth stories as they’re published here.
Star & Crescent is Portsmouth’s only independent community news outlet. We don’t answer to shareholders and we don’t publish sponsored or promoted content – we answer to you.
Get involved or donate to help local independent media thrive, and be part of the conversation on Facebook and Twitter.