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The Tree

by Calypso 

Posted: 13 October 2006
Word Count: 1961
Summary: It's just a short story ...

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Soon after my parents separated my mother started to knit a tree. I wasn’t sure exactly what sort of tree it was supposed to be. An oak or an elm or perhaps a chestnut. It was hard to tell and probably didn’t matter. But it was, nonetheless, a work of art.

At first the wool came from a saggy bag that had been under the stairs for at least as long as I can remember. But a tree as big as the one my Mum was knitting takes a lot of wool. It wasn’t long before she ran out of the colours she needed. More was bought from the shop in the village and but a lot came from the jumpers my father didn’t take with him.

Dad had been seeing a woman called Joanne. I don’t know where he met her or when. But I was suspicious from quite early on I think. He was suddenly cheerful. Until then Mum and Dad got by, that’s what Mum used to say, ‘We get by.’

So, I knew this was why Dad left home but I didn’t know the ins and outs. I mean, how did Mum get to find out about Joanne? Did he tell her or did she find out? Did she boot him out or did he leave by his own accord? Being only fifteen I wasn’t considered old enough to for the truth; although I think it would have helped me understand the chaos if I had known more.

One evening, two days after Mum had started the tree, I knelt in front of her with my arms held high as though in mid halleluiah. As Mum wound wool around my hands Dad’s sweater became less of a sweater. My arms began to ache. But I didn’t complain. What I was doing for Mum was important to her. I thought about how my great mother and my grandmother must have spent many evenings doing the same thing. Well, not quite the same because I had one eye on the telly (I would have turned it off but Doctor Who was on).

Although Dad’s clothes weren’t all brown and green, they were all made from earthy colours. Dad was that sort of man. When he went out he liked to disappear into the surroundings. Now his greys and beiges added texture to the tree’s trunk. If you stood in the doorway and blurred your eyes the colours fussed together so it really did look like gnarled bark.

On Thursday when the tree’s carcase was tall enough to reach the ceiling Auntie Ann came over to try and talk some sense into Mum. It didn’t work because the next day Uncle Pete arrived with his toolbox. In-between looking at Mum (elbows moving like she was doing the birdie song) and shaking his head, he fixed an impressive series of hooks and wires to the ceiling. Then the two of them attached the branches so they didn’t flop.

‘There are’, he said to me in a very serious voice, ‘always ways around gravity. Don’t let anyone tell you otherwise’.

This made me laugh. I made Uncle Pete and me mugs of tea, which we had with chocolate bourbons in the kitchen. Uncle Pete asked if I was okay and I said I wished my Dad would come back.

‘Look at this pink,’ Mum said one day, ‘I got Ann to get me this when I was in hospital after you were born. Until we knew what you were we had to play safe with white and yellow. But I reckon you can’t beat pink for blossom’. I felt the delicate strand between my thumb and forefinger and tried to imagine myself as a baby with happy parents.

It was spring in my Mum’s mad world. Leftover four ply was being knitted together to make cherry blossom. Mum showed me how you could knit two stitches together on one row and make it up on the next simply by wrapping yarn – that’s what she called wool – around the needle. It was fantastic. The holes made the petals look light and airy. We took it in turns to stand on the stool and sew the blossom evenly across the bare branches.

‘You were a beautiful baby, your Dad was so proud of you,’ Of course I’d heard all this before, but there are some things you never get tired of hearing.

‘It all went wrong when you were twelve.’ I remember that, being twelve, old enough to take two paracetamol and old enough to come home to an empty house. Mum had got herself a job at Timsons.

‘Your Dad didn’t like it one iota,’ Mum said, then paused to count stitches silently mouthing the number through her lips, ‘two, four, six, eight’. I remembered Dad not liking Mum being at work. He said I was too young to be left alone, which I found insulting. I suppose he only had my best interests at heart.

At first Mum was a receptionist, but then applied for a position in the creative studio. And around about the time I was taking my mocks she was promoted to an account executive. She was so excited that I had to tell her I got three ‘A’s twice before she said, ‘Well done dear’. Dad gave me money for the cinema and a pizza.

It was difficult because she had such incredibly tight deadlines to stick to. She stayed late most evenings to meet them. Dad would come home from work himself and there was still no meal on the table. ‘There’s a limit to how many times we eat fish and chips in a week,’ he said but he didn’t say what the limit was.

I thought about him in that semi on the estate with Joanne. I guess Joanne wouldn’t make Dad have fish and chips more than once a week, else he wouldn’t have left Mum for her would he?

It wasn’t just that Mum got home late, she soon started working weekends. Even when she wasn’t at work her mind was either on whatever project she was working on or she was dragging Dad off to the pub to drink with the kind of people he used to laugh at. ‘Mamby pambies,’ he said, ‘the lot of ‘em.’

Mum spent her money on weekly manicures and monthly facials. Shiny red nails and a glowing complexion. She bought designer clothes that didn’t come from the outlet factory shop. Dad got in a grump, she bought him new clothes too, but he didn’t like them and said she was letting the house go.

Mum hadn’t knitted for years and years. Not since before I could remember. Dad moved in with Joanne at about the same time as the conflict in Eastern Europe kicked off. The ladies at Auntie Ann’s church were asked to knit jumpers for orphans. They were given handouts that explained how to make a jumper by knitting four rectangles and sewing them together.

So in fact you could say the stupid tree was partly Auntie Ann’s fault because she was the one who brought the handouts around.

‘It’ll do you good to keep busy,’ she said, ‘not to mention the good it’ll do the little orphans.’

Mum laughed at the simplicity of the instructions and went to fish out her bag of proper patterns. Hoards of wool had been stored away, odd balls of wool were just one of those things that she didn’t throw away.

And so on Saturday night, instead of going out she started to knit. I went out myself at about 7pm and returned home at 10pm worried about being told off. She was still knitting and was so engrossed that she didn’t bat an eyelid when I put my head around the door and said ‘goodnight’. I don’t think she realised what the time was.

In the morning she was still there, still knitting, her rectangle didn’t stop when it should have done. In fact there weren’t any rectangles in sight. I asked her if she wanted a cup of tea.

‘Yes please love, and a slice of toast would go down a treat. What do you think? I’m knitting a tree!’ She held up reams of chocolate brown knitted stuff. And she was smiling.

Mum carried on knitting and she carried on smiling. She said she needed something to do in the evenings now that Dad had gone. That was total nonsense as she’d hardly been around in the evenings anyhow. It was Dad who needed something to occupy himself. (And it looked as though he had found something).

‘How’s your Mum?’ he asked when I saw him. He was wearing a new shirt and he smelt of garlic. ‘She’s fine,’ I said. I had arrived home from school to find her unravelling khaki from Dad’s gardening cardigan. Dad looked better than he had done for ages. I mean he looked happy. It was funny, but until then I thought Dad needed Mum more than she needed him.

‘It’s not the right shade,’ she frowned, she was talking about the khaki, ‘I need something juicer. You know how in spring the leaves have that limey tinge to them? When they’re all fat and juicy before the sun soaks them dry’. I had no idea that my Mum noticed such things.

‘It’s funny how it keeps growing!’ she chuckled, as if it was doing it by itself.

The Monday following the Saturday when she started the tree, she didn’t go to work. Dad was surprised when I told him that. ‘She’ll lose her job,’ he said, ‘she can’t just not go in.’ He sounded like he didn’t want her to lose her job. I knew things had changed.

‘But she has to finish the tree,’ I said trying to defend her, knowing I was sounding as daft as she was.

‘But have to finish the tree,’ she had said. ‘I know it’s quite ridiculous darling, but I seem to have become quite addicted to it!’ She laughed as though she was expecting me to laugh with her. The room was dark and dingy, the tree soaked up all the light from the window. I just looked at her.

‘Okay, I know,’ she said, ‘but think about how I feel. I really can’t stop and my eyes are sore and my fingers ache so much that I can’t sleep.’ I saw hard red lumps on her fingers. And her shiny red nails had given way to really ugly flakes of colour.

‘Stop knitting Mum. Please.’ I pleaded with her.

‘Okay. But just let me finish this branch. Have you seen how this rust colour works so well for autumn?’ I tried not to let her see me crying, I really did. ‘Please darling, just let me finish this last branch, it really is the last. I promise’. I didn’t believe her.

One day soon after that, I got home from school and she wasn’t in the lounge. I looked for her all over the house. She wasn’t there. I went back to the lounge and looked at the tree. Its massive stuffed trunk hulked its way up to our ceiling, the blossom trickled down over the doorway, towards the telly the leaves were thick and green, then orange and then bare. She’d started with spring and finished with winter. Full circle. I realised she really had finished. I pushed away a handful of leaves from the patio door and found it open.

Mum was sitting on the garden bench painting her nails. There was a mug of tea by her side. She smiled when she saw me.

‘It’s finished,’ she said, ‘I’ll go to work tomorrow.’

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Comments by other Members

Luisa at 21:13 on 13 October 2006  Report this post
As soon as I glanced at the first line of this story, I was hooked. I thoroughly enjoyed it. I found it original and evocative.

Just one tiny thing - I spotted a typo: ‘But have to finish the tree,’ was missing the word 'I'.

Wonderful story.


Moonshoe at 22:08 on 13 October 2006  Report this post
Great story! Slightly surreal and yet totally believeable in plot and character. The opening line is wonderful, sucked me straight into the story. I have a very clear image of Dad, as being the sort of man who wore all earthy colours, and also his transformation when he appears in a "new shirt and smelling of garlic." I want to know more about this family from the hints you have given, they feel like they have a life beyond this story - well done!



Calypso at 18:11 on 14 October 2006  Report this post
Thanks so much for these kind comments Luisa and Karen. This was my first post and I didn't know what to expect. It's impossible to be objective with your own work isnt it?

I need to start thinking about markets now...

Thanks again for taking the time to read it all.

Anna Reynolds at 13:43 on 15 October 2006  Report this post
Calypso, this also got me hooked totally from that magical first line. What a cracking opener and a lovely bit of writing. Some thoughts; I wondered if the ending might be slightly too abrupt? What exactly is that catalyst that means mum is able to stop, is it simply because she finishes the 'cycle' of life and has got it out of her system? I think it's maybe a question of some editing here and there, for instance, I don't think you need to tell us that she says she'll go to work tomorrow, etc, the line about panting nails shows us this much more effectively; it's a symbol of her former self, etc. This is also true in quite a few places throughout- just lines like, 'I think it would have helped me understand the chaos if I had know more' (about the split/Joanne) can feel like they're unnecessary as elsewhere you show this beautifully. It really is a show and tell thing, i think- and sometimes you do both where you don't need to, and this holds up what is otherwise a beautifully written, fresh, quirky story. I absolutely love the visual imagery of the tree, and how you've woven (sorry!) in the pink from the narrator's birth, etc. Gorgeous.


that'd be painting nails, of course...

Calypso at 21:06 on 15 October 2006  Report this post
Thanks Anna. Yes, you're so right about the ending. I struggle so much with endings. Your other points make sense too. I'm going to work on it again now. Glad you liked it generally.

PamH at 13:02 on 16 October 2006  Report this post
Hi Calypso

Your story drew me in and flowed along. The great image of the knitted tree, that in the end became almost oppressive - time to leave it behind once it had served its purpose.

The line about the fish and chips didn't gel with me for some reason and you have a typo:

village and but a

But far outweighed by wonderful images such as - my arms held high as though in mid halleluiah.


CarolineSG at 13:40 on 08 November 2006  Report this post
Hi Calypso,
Reading your post in the Lounge made me have a look here (I'm the same age as you, and also have young children). I really loved this. It was a gorgeous piece of writing - really quirky and moving with great flashes of humour.
It would be a fabulous first chapter...is this completely separate from the novel you're planning?
Great stuff anyway..well done.

Calypso at 18:46 on 08 November 2006  Report this post
Hi and thank you Caroline,

It's so encouraging to get positive comments, which is just what I need now, what with attempting to start a novel. I'm in awe of anyone who's completed one, how on earth did you do it (esp with kiddies!)? How long did it take?

This story isn't anything to do with my novel, although I was pleased with the characters, I don't like them enough to stick with them for a novel.


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