I was thirteen when my father got hurt. Looking back over the years, I sometimes wonder what I could have done differently that day. Spit twice over my shoulder when I saw the single magpie, maybe. But that's the thing about superstitions. You don't know how much power they have until you break them.
We lived in a dark brick and flint cottage in Bucks. Slate tiles on the roof. Wood blocks laid over dirt on the floor. That part of England was full of beech woods and cherry trees. Chalky soil.
The porridge had caught in the bottom of the pot that morning at breakfast and all I could smell was burned oats. Even now when I think of that day I have the taste of burned porridge in my mouth.
"I'm going to cut down the old cherry tree," my father announced.
"You've been saying that for years," said my mother dabbing at the drip on the end of her nose. Her nose ran all year long. Her elbows rested on the table, a cup of tea propped between her hands, steam spiralling up into the air. "You'll never get round to it."
My stomach, balled into a tight little knot, relaxed itself.
"Millie's going to cry if you cut it down," jeered my younger brother, Simon, his eyes bright as a fox. "Silly Millie, silly Millie."
"Hold your noise," said my father clipping Simon's head. "And put back that butter. That's a week's ration you've got on your plate."
"The war's over," muttered Simon. "We haven't had rationing for ages." Simon was right. Even sugar had come off points. However, we still occasionally received food parcels from distant cousins in Canada.
My father glared at him and then went on.
"Pigs. I've been offered two Saddlebacks and I need to get them sties built. Burt says he'll come and help me take the tree down if he can have some of the wood."
"No," I said springing to my feet. "You can't do it. That's my tree. Always has been. Always will be. I won't let you."
Tom, took a piece of toast, watching my reaction. My older brother, he knew what the tree meant to me.
"Now then, Millie," said my father softening his face. "That tree's wild. It's in the way."
"It's not in the way," I shouted, stamping my foot. "And it's got the best cherries in the world!"
"For goodness sake," said my father. "You've got a whole orchard of cherry trees to pick from. What's so special about that one?"
"Good thing if it's gone," said my mother clattering the plates together. "Maybe she'll stop in the house more. I could do with another hand cleaning up after you lot. Jane's off studying all the time. Can't say I blame her but who's to do all the work around here?"
My older sister Jane, neat, tidy Jane with a smile like the saints in those religious books they had us read in Sunday school, slipped silently out of the kitchen and up to the bedroom we shared. She was wearing her heavy coat and clasping a hot water bottle to keep her hands from freezing in the graveyard atmosphere of our bedroom.
"Nyah, nyah, nyah, told you so. She's crying," trumpeted Simon, pointing at me.
I was through the kitchen door in a second. No coat. Just a navy sweater and my old tweed skirt. I ran over the lawn, past the tumbledown barn to the cherry tree sitting amongst the remains of ancient pig sties. It had always been there. No one was going to take down the tree.
I climbed up into the cherry tree and sat with my back to the house. I was going to stay there all day. All night too if necessary. I loved the tree. I loved it more than Jane and certainly more than Simon. Perhaps as much as Tom.
I stroked its dark bark and held onto a branch. I felt I was the tree. If I stretched out my arms I could almost feel leaves budding at the ends of my fingers. Don't worry, I said patting a branch, I won't let them cut you down. I would be the guardian of the cherry tree, protector and saviour. I felt myself age as I took on my role.
The tree was my place. Tom had taken over the attic in the garage, made himself a comfy seat out of sacks and brought in some books. Simon mixed up messes in the pram shed, muttering to himself as he stirred things in an old paint can. Jane. Jane didn't seem to have the same needs as the rest of us. I had the tree. That was the place where people left me alone. The place where I could be myself.
In spring, I was a bride with a frothy veil of blossom, lining up cherry pits along the branch and chanting "Tinker, tailor, soldier, sailor, rich man, poor man, beggar man, thief." If I didn't end at the right place, rich man, I ate enough cherries to bring me there. Dark red and crunchy with a sweet sharp burst of juice. I strung cherries on my ears and between my toes where they shone like rubies in the sunlight.
On damp and misty days, I crouched in the tree and practiced whistling. Short tight bursts of sound, trying to draw them out into the swooping flowing strings of notes of my older brother. Sweet water glazed every leaf and I felt I was the only person left in the world.
The cherry tree had been there forever. We had grown up together, me and the tree. I was the only person between the tree and a heap of sawdust.
"Here, Millie." Tom was carrying my outdoor coat. "You'll get cold up there." He stuffed the coat up into the fork of the tree so that I could reach down for it.
He stood there, his hands in the pockets of his trousers, head bowed. He was as tall as our father was but much thinner, his hair a dirty blonde colour with tufts sticking up at the back. When he looked up again I could see the deep blue of his eyes and his startling black eyebrows.
"He's going to do it, you know. You're going to have to get used to it. He's off to talk with Burt Weedon now."
"Come on, Millie. Jump. I'll catch you." Tom held out his arms. We'd done this for years but it was getting harder with me getting heavier and older.
"No! No. No. They can't cut it down with me up here and here I'm staying."
I pulled the coat around me and stared into the distance. "Suit yourself," said Tom shrugging his shoulders and turning away.
I watched him go, kicking at tufts of grass on his way. He ran at a magpie sitting on the ground. The big black and white bird rose abruptly into the air, circled around and landed a safe distance away. "One for sorrow, two for joy, three for a girl, four for a boy." The words rang in my head. I cheated. Blinked my eyes and turned my head so that I would see the black and white bird more than once. But it was definitely a single magpie in the field. Not a good omen. I searched anxiously for another but couldn't see one.
The morning crept by like a slug.
If only I had planned this. Brought a book and some food. I couldn't quite bring myself to ask Tom to fetch me things. I was the guardian of the tree and guardians didn't think about such everyday things as boredom and hunger.
I heard the church clock in the village striking nine and then ten. Simon came and ran round and round the tree shouting up at me. His bare knees purple in the cold.
"Mum says she's going to give you what for when you get back in the house. She's got all that washing to do and needs you to hang stuff on the line."
That meant a hard swat across the backside and no dinner.
Simon danced with delight, smacking his own bottom. "Silly Millie, silly Millie!"
I hated my name. I was called after my great aunt Millicent. I think they hoped she would leave them some money but she had quietly died last winter and left all her money to rescue old donkeys.
The clock struck eleven and twelve.
I saw my father coming round the side of the barn. His movements were stiff and jerky. Angry movements. Normally patient, he could go off like a rocket as I knew to my cost. It didn't do to ignore the danger signs. He came closer and stood right below me, his stiff white hair standing up in a cox comb, his cheeks purple.
"How long are you going to sit up that tree then?" he asked, deceptively mild. "You can't stay up there forever. You be a good girl and come down and have some lunch. Pig's tail stew with dumpling."
His sounded reasonable but I could see his toe tapping and his shoulder flopping up and down as it did before he blew up.
"I'm staying here until you tell me you're not going to cut the tree down. It's my tree. It's always been my tree. I'm the guardian of the cherry tree." I stuck my chin in the air to emphasise the importance of my role.
"Don't talk silly. You can't own a tree. "
"I'm not moving," I said wrapping myself around a branch.
That was when he really exploded.
"You'll regret this. I've never known anyone so pig-headed. It's only an old tree. " He shook his fist at me. A heavy muscled fist. "You're not too old to be put over my knee and given a good hiding."
He waited staring hard, willing me to give in. I stared back, my stomach trembling with the enormity of what I was doing. The tree swayed in the wind and a branch ruffled my hair.
"You're the one who'll regret it if you harm the tree," I shouted, climbing well out of his reach.
My father turned abruptly and left, his back view dark with rage.
By two o'clock I was beginning to have serious doubts as to how long I could stay. I was stiff and hungry. I'd had to leap down once to squat and have a pee but I'd climbed straight back up. My mother had come and hung out the washing in the yard, her back radiating disapproval. I pursed my lips and began whistling, drawing out the sound, and sucking air in to prolong the noise.
"A whistling woman and a crowing hen ain't no good for God nor men. At least that's what my dad says." Tom and his friend John had crept round the shed and were standing beneath the tree. John was grinning up at me.
"You coming to the fair then?" he asked. "I'll give you a ride on the bumper cars."
Every year trailers wound their way through the lanes to set up on the village green. There would be merry-go-rounds and swings, bumper cars and coconut shys. You could have your fortune told or win a goldfish by throwing pingpong balls into a glass bowl. I loved the fair almost as much as I loved the tree. And I'd never been invited to go with my brother and his friend.
I looked at Tom and at John. The two boys stood there, hands in pockets, watching me. A leaf fell into my lap. I was the guardian of these leaves.
"I can't, Tom. I can't leave the tree. You know I can't."
"All right," he said carelessly. "Dad said he was going in to Chesham. He'll not be back until dark. He'll not cut the tree down in the dark."
"No," I said. "I'm not leaving."
John pulled down the corners of his mouth and looked sad. My stomach fluttered.
"Suit yourself," said Tom. "If you change your mind, you'll find us there. Come on then, John." He gave John a shove and started running down the hill. John stumbled.
"You ...," he yelled, galloping over the rough grass.
It was very quiet after they left.
I watched my mother going down the path and through the front gate. She had a basket over her arm. It must be heavy from the way she was carrying it, her elbow bent square, her hands holding each other. She was probably going to see Elsie. Elsie hadn't been right in the head since she got the telegram saying her son had been killed in France. My mother took her potatoes and soup. Sometimes a cottage pie.
The breeze blew a blast of music from the fair to the cherry tree. I remembered the merry-go-round with its painted horses on twisted gilt poles like sticks of barley sugar, the horses rising up and down in time to the music. I could taste pink candy floss and feel the caramel coating of toffee apples sticking to my teeth.
"My mother said
I shouted the words out loud. Then I saw my father again getting into the van and driving down the road. Tom was right. He was going to be out. My head felt tight with indecision. Maybe I was making a big fuss about nothing. If I missed this chance to go to the fair with John and Tom maybe there'd never ever be another. I swung my head around. The magpie was back.
I found I was arguing with myself. Tom said dad was going to be out all day. There's no point in staying in the tree if nobody's around to see what you're doing. Then the other voice. You said you were guardian of the tree. You said you'd be responsible for it. You said you'd stay there all night.
I put my arms around a big branch breathed in its sweet scent of bark and sap. Drops of moisture fell onto my head. I picked a leaf. It was October and the leaves were changing colour. I held tightly to the leaf and crossed my fingers. I'm only leaving for a short time. Don't let anyone do anything to you. I promise I'll look after you. Cross my heart and hope to die. I muttered the words just in case anyone saw me talking to the tree and then thumped to the ground and ran.
I had a plan. The tree wouldn't be left unprotected. I just needed to hide the ladder. Then my father wouldn't be able to take down the tree. This was just in case he came back early. The ladder was in its usual place leaning against the barn. It came off the wall easily and I turned it sideways. One end dragged along the ground. It was heavy.
"I can see you! I'm going to tell them you're out of the tree and taking the ladder!"
Sometimes I wanted to murder my younger brother.
"You say anything and I promise you I'm going to kill Whitey. I'll strangle him," I said wringing an imaginary neck with my hands. Whitey was Simon's fat rabbit. "No one would know. They'd just think he'd died."
"You'd never do that. Would you?" His question came out thin and strained.
"Just wait and see," I said. I'd never do it and he knew that but the threat was enough to worry the socks off him. "Now give me a hand with the ladder."
It was easier to move with someone else on the other end. We threw the ladder over the wall into the back meadow and pulled some grass over it.
"Remember," I said to Simon and I twisted my clenched fists as though I was strangling his rabbit. "Not one word."
I felt in my pockets. A dusty black and white peppermint humbug that had been there since Guy Fawkes' Day. An old bus ticket. A crumpled handkerchief. Two pennies and a halfpenny. That wasn't going to get me anything.
The back door into the kitchen was open. In the wall cupboard was an old cocoa tin. I tugged the lid off, dug my hand in and pulled out a handful of coins. Without looking I shoved them into my pocket.
If I went over the field I could walk across the back common to the green. That would take less time. I ran. My lace-up shoes thudded over the gravel pathway. My breath caught in my throat and I was getting a sharp stitch in my side. I bent over pressing my fingers into the pain. It eased as I walked through the gorse bushes. The music was getting louder.
"How are you, my pretty," a voice cooed.
I could see the round face of Roger the road sweeper looking at me over his shoulder. He wore his flat cap and he stood facing a gorse bush, his hands somewhere in front of him. I knew what he was doing. I could see the spray rising in front of him and I'd seen my father and brothers in much the same position often enough. He turned around smiling. But he hadn't done up his trousers. His cock was hanging limply out of the front. I felt sick.
I couldn't keep my eyes from that thing like the plucked neck of a chicken sticking out of his flies. He started coming towards me.
I turned and ran as fast as I could towards the lights and music of the fair. The grass was crushed and muddy, thick black cables snaking over the ground.
"Hello, Millie. How's your mum?" Mrs Wilson from the corner shop stopped me.--
"She's fine, Mrs Wilson. Have you seen Tom?"
"I think he's over at the shooting range. Aiming at the ducks I'll be bound."
Between the fortune teller and the stall where you had to throw rings over the prizes to win I could see my brother cradling an air rifle against his cheek, squinting down the barrel.
"Tom!" I called. "Oh Tom."
The gun went off and missed the painted ducks marching endlessly in front of him. Tom swore and then saw me.
"You've come then."
"Here Millie, I'll give you a turn at shooting the ducks." John was coming over to me. "Look this is how you do it." He put the rifle in my hands and put his arms around me lifting the rifle so that I could sight down the barrel at the ducks.
"Don't be soft, John. She's shot before. She knows how to use a rifle," said Tom.
John smiled his lazy smile.
"Not like this, she doesn't."
Together we pulled the trigger five times. Each time I aimed the black barrel at the face of Roger the road sweeper. Five times I blasted his round red face. I thought I would never tell anyone what I had seen that day. It lay inside me, heavy and silent.
"Here. You won!" cheered John. The Romany behind the stall set the ducks up again and pulled a toy duck from behind the curtain and handed it to me. I turned to show it to Tom but he wasn't there.
"Means I've got you all to myself," said John with a wink. I felt myself exploding as I took in his implied message. Literally. My thoughts tumbled around in my head. This was the first step up the ladder. He must like me. Want to be with me. But the memory of Roger and his unbuttoned trousers hung in the background. It was edged with fear as well. Fear of what John wanted from me.
"Now the bumper cars," he said.
John and I squeezed into one of the little cars. He drove, his arm over my shoulder, turning the wheel casually, crashing into the side of other cars. Far too soon we slowed down. John pulled out a half-crown and handed it over to the man as he jumped on the back of our car, balancing as we started up again.
At the last minute Tom hopped into another car and gave John a thumb's up sign.
"You take the wheel, Millie." And I leaned against John, smelling the dark hairy smell of his tweed jacket. I made that car dance and dodge and twist. Nobody caught us. John and I were shut forever in this world of crashing, darting cars. Forever until the power was turned off and we all slid to a halt. I could handle this grown-up world. I was ready for it.
"Get you some candy floss, if you like," I said reaching into my pocket.
"How come you've got so much money, young Millie? Been robbing the post-office?"
"I've been saving it up. All year," I said paying for three sticks wound around with pink spun sugar.
Next we went on the merry-go-round. Tom didn't want to. He said it was for babies but John sat on the horse behind me, his arms round my waist. We rose and fell in time to the music. Round and round, faces blurring on the ground. When we got down, dizzy and unsteady, I said, "I have to go now. I have to get back to the tree."
"Come on, we've only just started," said John. "We've still got the coconut shy and the fortune teller."
"Dad's not going to do it," said Tom. "He told me. We've got lots of time."
John put his arm around my waist.
"You've got to stay," he said. "You're going to be my girl this afternoon."
I looked at Tom. He grinned. That made it all right. My older brother had never let me down. The rest of that afternoon we stayed together. A unit. I belonged with them. We threw balls at the coconuts but they stayed firmly in place even when we hit them square on. Tom reckoned they'd been glued in. John sat opposite me in the swings and pulled so hard on the rope, I thought we would go right over the top and keep swinging round and round in a circle. We had our fortunes told and threw hoops and pingpong balls. John took off his jacket and tried to ring the bell with the hammer. My face kept smiling and I felt tall and almost thin.
"Thirsty?" asked John. He bought a bottle of Tizer and we took it down by the pond. I had the first swig of the orange-coloured, gassy liquid. Then John took the bottle from me and drank deeply not bothering to wipe my spit off the neck. It was the closest anyone had got to putting their lips on mine.
I sat between Tom and John, their hairy warmth surrounding me. Boys smelled different from girls I decided. Stronger. A bit like goats. On the other side of the pond, I could see Roger the roadsweeper pushing his wheelbarrow. Tom saw him as well and laughed.
"I caught Roger with his flies undone and his piece hanging out. Told him to put it away or he'd lose it."
"Dirty old man," agreed John. "Shouldn't think he'd know what to do with it anyway."
"Cold?" asked John.
"No. It's that Roger." I felt so strong and powerful with the boys. I felt I could tell them anything. Even the sight of Roger that afternoon. "He show'd me his willie." I was edging into no man's land saying this to the boys. My mother would have washed my mouth out with soap if I'd said it in front of her.
"He never did," said Tom, all teasing gone. "Dirty old man. I'm going to get him."
"No, Tom!" I said. "It's OK. I'll just avoid him."
"It's not OK," said my brother, rising to his feet. "Not at all. I'm going to see to him," he repeated."
His fists were swinging, hanging inches down from the end of his jacket sleeves and his eyes had turned an ice blue that meant bad news. He strode off towards the road man.
I stood up, uncertain now. I hadn't wanted to get my brother involved in sorting out Roger. Roger was a big man and could easily fight Tom off. I hadn't meant to cause any trouble. I'd only told them to show I wasn't as young and untouched as they thought I was. That I was old enough to take part in their world. That their older world was reaching out to me.
"Stop him," I said to John. "You stop him. Please."
"He'll be all right," said John, lazily. "Sit down. He'll be back in a minute."
I looked at John. He didn't care that my brother was going to get beaten up. I started running around the pond. Tom had stopped Roger. Roger's face was turning purple and his jaw was sticking out. They both had their fists clenched ready to strike.
"You keep yourself buttoned up around my little sister or I'll give you a good hiding," growled Tom.
"Don't make me laugh," snorted Roger. "You and who's army?"
I grabbed Tom's sleeve and tugged.
"Come away, Tom. It's not worth it."
Tom turned briefly to look at me and at that moment Roger swung his fist. Tom hit the road with a thump.
"Next time pick on someone your own size," jeered Roger. "And tell your dad if he needs a ladder another time, he can go look somewhere else."
Everything stopped at that moment. I swear the merry-go-round stopped turning. People stopped biting off strands of candy floss. Dogs didn't bark.
"A ladder?" I said to Tom. "Dad was going out. You told me he'd gone out. You told me, Tom."
My older brother was holding a hand over his right eye but his left eye slipped away from my gaze. It was the first time I'd ever seen him do that to me. I'd seen it other times. With our father and others. Tom shrugged his shoulders and turned away.
I ran down the hill and up the driveway.
When I reached the barn I stopped my breath rasping my lungs, a stitch drilling my side. I bent over. My dad's van was parked next to the barn, the back doors open. I had made a pact with the tree and I had broken my word. I willed air to come back into my lungs pressed my fingers into my side. My nose smelled fresh cut wood. My ears heard the rhythmic thrust of a saw.
My father, up the ladder, turned when he heard me. He rested his saw where it was. Biting deeply into one of the branches of the cherry tree.
"Now then, Millie," he said.
"No!" I shouted again. I grabbed the ladder and began shaking it. It hardly moved with my father's weight on it.
"Get away, girl," my father roared. "This trees coming down whether you like it or not."
I was never sure whether the tree just dropped its branch the way a lizard will lose its tail rather than be caught but as my father turned to me, the limb he had been leaning on gave way. The ladder slipped sideways and I watched my father grasping at the branches, looking to the tree to save him. Surprise and shock flooded his face as the ladder tilted and the branch let go its hold on the tree. His body large and dark against the sky twisted and fell. There was an inevitability about his fall. As if I had seen this all before.
He grunted as he landed, his feet tangled in the borrowed ladder. The saw dropped onto the ground next to him.
I was stuck. My feet wouldn't move. My arms, lifted from my sides in the faint hope of preventing his fall, stayed in the air. I heard the magpie squawk from high up in the branches. I heard my little brother running up behind me then stop. The music from the merry-go-round floated over the field.
My father gasped trying to catch his breath. His eyes were wide open.
"Damn you, girl," he said. I'd never seen him brought down like this. He was hurt. Hurt bad. He groaned again.
I knelt down beside him, tears dropping onto his jacket.
"You shouldn't have made me do it, dad. You shouldn't have touched the tree."
Simon hovered a dark shadow behind me.
"What happened? What happened? I'll go get mum."
The magpie fluttered down again as I stroked my father's head. He didn't speak anymore. His face was twisted in pain. I could hear his breathing and feel his warmth.
"I'm sorry, dad. I'm sorry."
The ambulance men had had to lift dad onto the stretcher. He couldn't walk. Couldn't do much of anything. Mum went with him to the hospital and left us to look after ourselves. Nobody ate much. Tom's eye was squeezing shut. I soaked some strips of old bed sheet in old water to bring down the swelling in his eye. Simon went off to bed without making a fuss. Jane and I washed up the plates with only an occasional word.
Night had fallen by the time I got outside and I could smell damp leaves on the ground as I walked. When I got close to the cherry tree I saw a scar on the trunk where the limb had broken. The ladder was lying on the ground. The saw beside it. I stood close to the trunk. I felt the tree's power going through my body. Its roots were my roots. I climbed slowly into the tree and rubbed my hand across the place where the branch had been cut. The surface was raw. I wrapped myself around the tree and held out my arm. My hand fluttered in the breeze, fingers spread wide. I smelled sawdust. Sap beat through my veins. Leaves caressed my face.