‘This Christmas,’ his daughter Keira said, ‘we want to get you something special. Not just socks.’
Outside, blood-red leaves were gathering in the concrete corners of the courtyard, swept off early in the recent gale.
Now, how to put this?
‘Aren’t you planning rather far ahead?’ He tried to say it gently.
He wanted to tell her about the tiny adventures of each day: the way the light crossed the room, the overheard conversations, the small jokes he exchanged – the many kindnesses.
‘I am not!’
That fierceness. She’d hold back the tide if she could.
‘I like socks,’ he said.
He liked the care that went into choosing each pair. The unicorn and rainbow socks chosen by his two half-French granddaughters. The rockets and dragons chosen by Zak, Keira’s youngest; the consciously cool ones chosen by his brother, Aaron, older by four years.
Keira’s socks were always soft and thick, and this is what he wore most days to pad around this new place he was living in. The thicker the better, cushioning the ache in his bones which went everywhere with him.
‘It’s not enough,’ Keira said. ‘Not this year.’
He heard the muffled tears in her voice, recognised her need for some memory to cling to… after.
What will I leave them?
His two daughters: one so near, one so far. His youngest living in rural France, spoken to mainly by Skype; his granddaughters spinning around restlessly, half in and half out of the camera’s view, as they talked. The eldest, trying to go en-pointe, ‘Look Grandad, I’m a danseuse!’ Those thin arms, held in a tulip shape, long hair loosely tied.
His two grandsons, so much nearer. Aaron and Zak, both so vulnerable in their different ways. Zak so quiet, so lacking in confidence; and Aaron always performing, tapping frantically away on his phone, trying to keep up with a world which was moving too fast.
He ached for all of them, worried for all of them. It was the main thought that troubled him in this long slow goodbye he carried in his bones.
The future was theirs, and he wished that he – and the others of his generation – could have given them something more resembling an Eden. He frowned when he watched that too-serious girl on the TV, telling the adults off with such determination and rage. He wondered what the world had come to, that a girl like her had no time for play.
We thought it was such a good thing to build a better future for our children, to give them all the things we didn’t have. And now…
No, there’s not much I want for Christmas, just hope for something better for them all.
Which is when he thought of it: ‘Give me trees.’
‘Yes. That’s what they reckon it needs, isn’t it? Trillions of trees. Not perhaps enough in itself, but a huge part of the solution. Reforestation, rebuilding woods, planting hedgerow.’
‘Everywhere,’ he said, then laughed when he saw her expression. ‘Ah, no. I’m not expecting you to get your hands dirty. Just – well, after all, how many socks do I actually need? Particularly if I could have trees planted for me, in a place where they could do the most good. There’s got to be a way. I’ll do some research.’
And he did. The time spent on the old PC his son-in-law had set up for him opened up a new world of exciting projects. But he kept it simple, chose one.
‘The Eden Reforestation Project alleviates poverty by employing villagers to plant and nurture mangrove forests,’ he told Keira, quoting from the website. ‘Apparently, they trap four times as much carbon as even rainforests.’ He always had liked value for money.
‘But you won’t have anything concrete.’
‘I’ve already got that.’ He gestured through the window to the smooth expanse of flagstones.
Keira’s face didn’t relax.
‘Get Aaron and Zak to do a painting. You can pin it up for me.’ Although it wasn’t him who needed to see the results of his request, but her.
‘It’s for the future,’ he said.
And he wondered, as he’d been wondering for a while, what happens when breath stops. And he thought of the essence of trees, lifting into the sky, filling the planet with something that the naked eye couldn’t see and so forgot to value.
Filling the planet with something so essential that without it there was no life.
Of course, all good plans have to change sometimes. He’s done his best to conform to what Keira wants for Christmas. But this visitor in his bones is less obliging, so in the end the family are meeting for Christmas Day dinner without him.
But that’s okay. Eating isn’t so very pleasurable these days. Not when it’s unlikely to stay down, and not when a cracked femur makes sitting upright too painful, despite the morphine.
Only the shortest journeys are manageable now. Like this current one to the residents’ lounge – the two nurses wheeling him in and settling him in his favourite reclining chair, ready to receive his family.
‘Like royalty,’ he’ll joke when they file in.
They’ll be subdued; the grandchildren more so. He wishes he could tell them he is still the same person who kicked a ball around with them, who crawled around on the floor and brought to life toy animals, maids of honour, villains – whichever supporting role they wanted him to play.
They know something is wrong. He sees it in their faces, feels that even before the end they are slipping away from him. And although he tells himself it’s okay, it is hard to accept.
And yet, today, proves different. They arrive in a chatter of talk, sounding excited.
‘Grandad!’ They’ve got hands behind backs, grins on faces. All four of them, shoulder to shoulder, in front of their parents.
‘What are you hiding?’ he says.
They twist and turn to bring the picture out from behind them; it’s the length and width of a mural.
‘A veritable forest,’ he says.
‘We painted it between us, this morning. We wanted to show all the trees.’
The roll of paper is crammed with trees; the green is vivid, multicoloured, the brush strokes varied. Even though he pretty much recognises the individual styles, he wants to be sure.
‘Who painted which bit?’
They cluster around him, pointing and jostling. Zak still has a streak of green in his hair.
After a while, Aaron runs across the room and comes back with a smaller A3 page and his phone.
‘These fruit trees we helped buy are in Portsmouth. In our adventure playground.’ The painting is a more spiky, spindly affair. ‘We helped plant them too!’
Aaron holds the screen of his phone up to show him and Zak looking muddy, with a kindly looking white-haired man in the background, grinning encouragement.
‘We’re going to be junior tree wardens and help look after them. Keep them watered in summer, and make sure nobody hurts them.’
They’re chatting away, like they used to, tugging on his hand for emphasis. Leaning in until he can smell the essence of each of them. And even though his morphine is wearing off, he doesn’t press the button.
After a while the chat slows and they look at Keira, saying, ‘Can we? Can we do it now?’
He spots her giving him an assessing look, checking he’s still up to it. And her care for him is another gift that’s better than socks.
He turns one hand slowly until his thumb is uppermost. Concentrates on breathing around the pain, the way he’s learnt, accepting its presence, the way he’s accepted every step of this journey.
The children run out of the room. There’s laughter and excited squeals. He drifts for a moment, enjoying the sound. And when he opens his eyes again they’re back, and they’re carrying pots: dark soil, green shoots.
‘This one’s a conker I gathered in the woods,’ Aaron says, ‘and this one’s sycamore.’
‘This one’s an acorn, and it’s going to be an oak,’ Zak says.
‘This hazel and this rowan came from your favourite garden centre,’ his granddaughters tell him, ‘because we weren’t here to go seed gathering with the others. But we’re going to plant more trees next year, in France. And they’ll be for you too.’
‘I’ve arranged for these pots to go into the courtyard,’ Keira says. ‘We did the health and safety forms, worked out where to place them so there’s still room for wheelchairs.’
‘We’re going to come and water them every few days,’ Aaron and Zak speak together.
And afterwards? He wonders. Will the seedlings stay here for the other residents? Or will you plant them elsewhere, somewhere where they can grow up tall, become part of a wood?
He could ask, because knowing Keira she’ll have that planned too.
But he doesn’t. Because she doesn’t want to think about afterwards, none of them do. So why mention it?
Inspiration: The people dedicating themselves to the work of tree planting are inspirational and enthusiastic, and I loved spending time with them while researching for our ‘Planting Portsmouth’ articles. A writing prompt from Eileen Phyall, ‘He wondered just how many pairs of socks one man could receive’, provided the seed I needed to grow a short story out of this fertile ground.
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.
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