Jeremy had taken off his shoes and tucked them around the side of the tree. The ancient mulch of the soil was cool and soft beneath his bare feet, prickly with fallen needles. He dug his feet beneath the soil, through the latticework of weedy roots, the soil filtering through his toes. Beyond Hiro’s low canopy the day remained bright. The fresh air was just right, perfect in the shade. The boughs above breathed a whispering chime as they moved on the breeze. Lively figurines danced where the light passed through the branches.
These are the most perfect days of our life,’ he said. He closed his eyes and put his nose on the top of Claire’s head. Her hair wasn’t clean. He preferred that smell, her natural state. The oily dirtiness of her hair. He opened his lips, to breathe it in, to taste.
‘I concur,’ Claire lilted on strawberry-sweet breath. He could feel the soft air moving the hairs on his forearms. She was leaning back against his chest, her dress tucked beneath her thighs, her feet crossed. His arms were around her. Hiro was holding his weight, holding hers.
‘They’re not necessarily the best days,’ Jeremy continued. ‘Not the most memorable. But these are the ones that we’ll think of when we need our happy place. The merry-go-round of life. The circus of living and loving. The simple by and by when we need to get away from the fairground.’
‘Hmmm.’ As her shoulders relaxed he felt her weight lighten. He had not noticed that she had been tense. ‘Just shut up,’ she said.
Jeremy picked up his book and began to read. He wasn’t into it at all – romantic chick lit was really not his thing. Naomi, his friend from work, knew this, but for some reason had lent it to him anyway. It was bland, the least inspiring piece of literature that he had ever read. For a romantic comedy it had two major flaws: it wasn’t romantic and it wasn’t funny. He had just passed the part when the protagonist, rather than getting together with the man of her dreams, had been killed off.
‘A love like ours can never die,’ Claire said, as if she had read his thoughtless wanderings, awakening him from the pages that he had read without absorption, passing along in the day. ‘You know that?’
‘That’s what I’ve always thought, honeysuckle,’ he said. He looked down at the side of her face. The long natural lashes; the simple roundness of her cheek; the waves of her dark hair, darker for the dirt. The small rise of her chest against his arm with each breath. He felt love like healthy pain. So strong; so unbounded. Everything that he had ever wanted, she was here in his arms. This was their place. Their Hiro. Theirs only.
Jeremy looked out at the people passing by beneath them, in the valley between the mixed, thick random rows of native trees. Couples holding hands. Families walking in packs. Cyclists. Joggers. He watched one man stooping as he ran alongside a little boy. He wondered what the man would be saying. The man scooped up the boy and ran with him under his arm. Jeremy could hear the joyous protestations from where he was sitting. For all of the people passing by, he watched the man and the jiggling boy until they had passed from sight.
No one could see them when they were sitting beneath Hiro. The tall bracken stood thick all around, shielding their special spot in the shade. They had meditated there. Had even made love there on a picnic blanket. Mostly they just sat: a chat, a drink, a picnic. Sometimes you don’t need the rest of the world when you have a special place that is yours only. One time they had encountered a nuclear family there in their spot. Jeremy had wanted to chase them off. They had a few other places in the park where they sometimes went – none quite so secluded – so that time they had gone to one of them instead. They hadn’t made love beneath Hiro since then.
They had waited for all of their lives to meet, and this place had waited for them to come and find it. It had felt like forever, before and since.
‘Life is where we start,’ Claire said in her dreamy way. So peaceful was Jeremy’s mind that he had almost forgotten that she was there with him. ‘But love is where we begin.’
Looking upon the delicate skin of her cheek, Jeremy scratched his head. Lately she had been saying things like this to him, quite out of character for her. They were like lines taken from the book that he had been lent, not like her at all. Usually she’d interrupt silence to invent money-making ideas for him, or suggestions for concoctions of food. Strange concoctions. He was love’s dreamer. He’d stick Post-It notes on the inside of the front door for her, for when she left in the morning: a picture of an island in the shape of a heart with a sign saying WE ARE HERE; snippets of lyrics from their favourite songs: I’LL TAKE A BRUISE, I KNOW YOU’RE WORTH IT – with a picture of a bruise in a naughty place; GOD ONLY KNOWS WHAT I’D BE WITHOUT YOU – with a sketch of The Big Man waving a stick man around by the leg; I COUNT YOUR EYELASHES SECRETLY, WITH EVERYONE I WHISPER I LOVE YOU – with a drawing of closed eyes, lashes beaded with hearts; BLESS THE WEATHER THAT BROUGHT YOU TO ME – with a simple love-heart. There were lots of love-hearts. Lots of bad poetry, too.
For all of his words that he gave her, Claire could never cease to amaze him with the way that she thought. She had the most amazing mind: flighty, dreamy, outlandish and endearing. From when they first met, it hadn’t taken long for him to travel by gondola over the river of Love to the Land of Adoration. With such an unpredictable mind, at any given moment Claire could surprise him.
‘Jez, “If you love something, set it free.” You know that expression?’ she said, springing the trap.
His mouth had gone dry. The sun fairies had disappeared, dancing elsewhere. Clouds drifting over the sky, blocking the light. He could see that her eyes were closed. Could see the solitary tear tracing down her cheek. He wanted one last taste of her dirty hair before she was gone. ‘Yeah,’ he said, the familiar sharp, salty taste rising where nostrils meet throat. ‘Yeah, I know it, sweetheart.’
‘It doesn’t mean doing it for the one that you love, you know?’ She turned to face him. Her eyes were open, wet. Her cheeks a little flushed, like when she woke after a good night’s sleep. Her weight against him was almost nothing now. The pointed arch of her eyebrows. The worry lines. Her lips narrow. He bit a part of his bottom lip between two teeth, bit harder, to feel the pain. ‘It’s about doing it for yourself. It’s about . . . letting that love go now.’ She looked so vulnerable, so childlike. ‘Let it go. Move on, Jez. I want you to. I’m giving you my permission. It’s . . . it’s another carousel horse that you’re riding upon now. Break free of the merry-go-round.’
‘Please, Claire. Please,’ he said. But he wouldn’t cry. Not again. ‘Just one more kiss.’ He leaned forward, towards her. ‘Just one . . .’
Jeremy opened his eyes. Claire was not there. She had blipped out within the sound of an echo. A beat within the air. She was gone, once more.
They had first seen the ancient Japanese pine tree when walking in the park one day. They were looking for a place to go that was away from the many other people walking around the park; somewhere away from everyone. From the valley between the trees, Jeremy pointed out the lightning-struck pine – the damaged top of the tree missing. It spread out over the bracken, so huge but somehow invisible among the colour of beech, oak, horse chestnut and other native trees. It was dark in the light, as if in need of comfort. It was asking them to join it, to bring colour to the low, deep-green needle-threaded branches.
‘Do you think that we could get up there?’ Claire asked. She had rediscovered adventure, in part, since she had started dating Jeremy. But she was also primly indecisive, as if everything was somehow out of bounds, in need of authorisation – all traits that were another part of the fabric of the gondola. Claire was so unlike other girls; unlike anyone that Jeremy had ever met. He didn’t know that he had been looking for anything or anyone until he had found everything, this girl of his unimagined dreams.
‘I know one way that we can find out,’ Jeremy said, taking her hand. ‘Good spot,’ he added.
They walked up the rutted path that branched away from the main walk of the valley. The bracken was just as thick, if not thicker, on the banks leading up to the now looming tree. Some new trees had been recently planted on the banks, protected from deer and rabbit by slatted wooden frames. Where the ancient pine had appeared anonymous before, now it dominated the skyline.
‘Don’t you think that we should just, maybe, go to that place by the pond instead?’ Claire said, that slightly defeated look of tough challenge on her face. ‘I mean, do you think that there will be snakes?’
‘Nah,’ Jeremy said, not really certain whether there would or wouldn’t be until that moment, but deciding that probably there would. ‘Not their type of environment,’ he said. ‘They prefer rivers and, erm . . . cinemas on days like today.’
Even as Claire clutched his hand tighter, she laughed. ‘Are you sure?’ she asked, a slight curl of her lips, entirely cute.
‘Hang on,’ Jeremy said, ‘I’ll ask. Yoo-hoo, snakey snakerson. You here, or watching Bambi, or something? Hellooo . . . See,’ he said, turning to Claire, ‘Not their kind of place. Anyway, it’s the wolves that you need to look out for. Come on.’ He started towards the bank. But Claire resisted, not coming on at all.
‘Do you think that we’ll be able to get through all that bracken? Doesn’t it scratch? Doesn’t it irritate skin?’
‘Claire, come on,’ Jeremy said, letting go of her hand. He opened his arms. ‘I’ll carry you if you want. When we get there we can . . .’ He looked around at the young and old passing by in the near distance. ‘There won’t be anyone else there.’
‘O-kay,’ she said, biting her lips together between a smile. She loved a little drama, just a small one; to challenge a challenge. She always had to run all permutations past him until she ran out of questions. He loved to oblige, by way of patient convincing, sometimes appearing like meek surrender. It most often took a while to get anywhere, but it was always worth it.
‘Look,’ Jeremy said. ‘Someone’s already trodden a path down through the bracken over there.’
‘You don’t think that there will already be someone there, do you, when we get there?’
‘Nah, it’s probably just a deer trail.’ It was Jeremy’s turn to smirk. ‘There won’t be anyone there.’ Looking her in the eyes, he picked up her hands. ‘Trust me,’ he said gently. She always did.
It wasn’t by chance that Jeremy had found the pathway through the bracken that led to the tree. On a reconnaissance mission through the park to find the perfect secluded spot, he had already trodden through the bracken, spiked with stinging nettles, a few days before. He had known exactly where he wanted to take Claire. The picnic blanket was in a bag over his shoulder.
In pointing the tree out to Claire, he had wanted her to come up with the suggestion of going there, without thinking about the getting there, to make it feel like her idea. The less importunity required, more satisfaction for both. He knew that she would. Loving her inside out that way, he had never had that soul connection with anyone before; had never wanted to cognitively share his inner-self with anyone. It had come so easy with Claire. It made a life so simple.
Having declined a piggyback or a carry, Claire followed him into the bracken. Jeremy trod flat-footed, widening the path. He held his hands above his shoulders, holding one of Claire’s hands, slow to her careful step. With each step that she took, her fingers tightened upon his. She was pinching, bending his fingers back. Allowing his hand to follow her movements, he sucked it in. And then they were standing in the shadow of the massive pine.
Jeremy walked directly to the trunk and wrapped his arms around it. They reached not even a quarter of the way round. He closed his eyes, breathed meditatively. Immediately, he could feel the complete therapy of tranquillity. His face was against the spongy-soft bark. Claire pressed herself against his back, her arms over his, resting her head against his. ‘It’s so beautiful,’ she said. ‘So peaceful.’
‘We’re tree huggers, baby,’ he murmured.
With the noise of day-trippers hidden beyond the bracken, sheltered from the humid warmth of the day, it was a place entirely different to anywhere else in the park. Being there just felt right. It felt straight away like their place.
They had a favourite bench on the town green, called Lee – it had originally been called Benchley – favourite tables in favourite restaurants; favourite places to walk; and favourite songs, of course. But all of those things had to be shared with others; all of them could be other people’s favourite places to go, to listen to. In the park, most people wanted to be out in the broad sun. They were like settler’s claiming a spot: while all the others chose a place nearby the river, they had chosen a sheltered place with a view, on the edge of the border. A place where they could be alone with each other.
There was no grass growing beneath the heavy boughs, no weeds. The bracken was growing only beyond the furthest reach of the branches, encircling the tree completely. It offered a neon glow, reflecting the sun, making the place beneath the tree seem much brighter than it had looked from afar. Between a knitted weave of roots, filled with composted fallings, was a perfect seat for two, looking out over the valley. The picnic blanket wasn’t needed after all.
Sitting down, Claire leaned her head against Jeremy, one hand against the small of his back and the other gently rubbing his stomach. ‘This is exactly where I want to be,’ she said. Jeremy put his nose into her oily hair. It was Sunday: by routine, Claire wouldn’t wash her hair until that night.
‘I just want to be with you,’ he mumbled, kissing the top of her head. Her scent was delicious and unclean. ‘Anywhere. Everywhere. Any day and every day. Each day that I have with you is the most beautiful, amazing day I’ve ever had. Each day more beautiful that the last. Always. Forever.’
She had stopped rubbed his stomach; was now running a thumb up and down his spine. She was emitting noises like the bliss that he was feeling. ‘Forever,’ she muttered. Her breathing slowing. It felt as if she might be falling asleep on him. Her soft utterances were decorated with ramblings that sounded like words. To Jeremy some of them sounded like names. He watched as her lips moved, as if she was chewing. Could hear the click of her lips parting.
And then it wasn’t like she was sleeping at all. He could almost feel her brain whirring. Claire pulled away from him, eyes wide; her mouth a startled O. Jeremy’s first thought was, Oh no. Where’s the snake?
‘Hiro!’ she said. ‘That’s it: Hiro.’
‘I thought that I was the one with the cheesy lines.’ He smiled like he might burst. ‘But thanks.’
‘Not you,’ she said. She punched him. And then she laughed. Removing her hand from his back, she began to rub the bark. ‘Hiro.’ She said it like she was comforting a poorly dog. That mind of hers. It could scare him, sometimes. It could sometimes seem like she was on some transcendental journey of the mind, wandering through scenery on a plain that no one else could see or could possibly even imagine. Wondering when she might land back in reality. Jeremy loved to watch as she tripped along in some dreamy other place. He wished that she’d take him with her more often – it looked as spacious as it was wondrous.
She was smiling as she stroked the tree, her eyes twinkling with childish wonder. ‘Hiro.’ And so the ancient tree was named.
Jeremy released the tree from his embrace, the quarter of it that he could reach around. He had climbed up into the boughs, by way of a heavy branch that was touching the ground, into the bracken. He was still barefoot, the soft bark welcoming the soles of his feet. He felt good. He felt relaxed. Tapping into Hiro’s natural energy always made him feel so. His head was clear, his heart at ease. He was zoned out. A dove flew from the top of the tree, away into the day. The flapping of wings through the branches startled Jeremy none.
He sat down, his dangling legs twenty feet above the ground. He had never climbed this high up into Hiro before. He would likely climb higher yet, but first wanted to stop a while and watch the last of the people and the day pass by. He and Claire had always been for sunrises and sunsets; early morning rather than late night. He would talk to her at those times too, these days; to tell her how much she would have loved the things that he was witnessing – a cloud formation, a view, a river, a tree, a horse, a day – any of nature’s great offerings. Rarely would he tell her, on whispers, “Sometimes I just can’t believe that you’re gone. That’ll never wake up with you again. That we’ll never share these things as one. That these things that are ours are now mine only.” It was so much simpler to picture her there with him without those words: her touch, her smile, her shape, her warmth. The sweet sound of her voice on strawberry breath. The dirty-cute smell of her unclean hair. She was still so easy to recall. Even when the image of her drifted into atoms, her beauty had never faded.
“The sun rises and sets with you.” That had been her line. Yet the sun continued to rise and to set. And he watched it alone.
Sitting on the thick branch, near to Hiro’s trunk, eyes closed, Jeremy forgot that he was high up in the tree. He forgot where he was. His mind was drifting, swaying with the pines. Breathing in rhythm. Curling his toes, a breeze bathing his bare feet.
The ping of his phone brought him back to the day, as unwelcome as a morning alarm.
SRY GNA B L8 XXXX
Sliding the phone back into his pocket, his face shrugged. He pulled his phone back out and turned it on to silent.
Jeremy looked past his feet, to the ground below. To the seat for two. He could imagine the two of them down there, cuddled up. When life had been so simple. Tripping back through time had become so easy that he sometimes wondered if he had gone crazy. It was all a part of processing the loss of the greatest love that he had ever known, maybe as great as love has ever been for any man. Why should he let those feelings go away? When he was out, doing things – socialising, working, running – he functioned perfectly fine. He felt more clear-headed than he had done in a long while. It was just in these moments. It was in this place. It was why he kept returning. For Hiro’s telepathic soothing, allowing him to communicate through clear visions. There were no tears any longer; he smiled when he thought of her.
He held out his hand. An invisible line trailed from his fingers. He watched as it lowered, carefully dangling above the seat in the roots.
‘I was going to propose to you here,’ he said, careful not to let the line slip. He could feel the tiny weight taking the line down. His heart was travelling faster, bringing heat to his face. One hand on the bough settled him when he felt a vertiginous wave. He could picture Claire’s face as the line reached her: the confusion; the slow, beatific realisation. He had told her father once of his future intentions. Waiting for the perfect moment. This moment. Hiro knew too.
Claire was looking up at him, the ring resting in her palm. The beat of her heart matching his. And then she saw the heart-shaped piece cut from Hiro’s bark. The words that Jeremy had carefully painted upon it. WILL YOU MARRY ME, SWEET LADY? And then, her face a smiling, shining diamond, she looked back up him . . .
Jeremy let go of the imaginary line. His stomach tripped over itself. Pulling his feet up, standing, he leaned against Hiro. Twenty feet below, someone had appeared. They were hugging Hiro. Breathing in the heart of the great tree. Jeremy looked down upon her dark hair. It was not wavy; it had been straightened. From there it looked clean.
‘Hey, Hiro,’ Jeremy heard her say.
He was breathing unsteadily. Biting his lips together. He moved in closer to Hiro. He could feel his thoughts running into the life of the tree. She was there. She was here. Jeremy could hear Claire’s meditative breaths: long inhalations, hold, and then exhale through the nose. She sat down on the seat for two, checked her phone, and then pushed her bag to one side. He watched as she kicked off her pumps and crossed her feet on them.
‘I feel close to you when I’m here,’ she said. Holding onto Hiro, Jeremy leaned out a bit, to see who Claire was talking to. He looked around the other side of the tree. He couldn’t see anyone. A loose piece of bark fell from the bough. Jeremy dared peer back down at Claire, to see if she was looking up. She was talking again, looking out into the park. ‘I still feel close to you so much of the time, Jez. When I see a beautiful sky, or . . . I don’t know. The other day I saw a shirt that I knew you’d like and a sadness came over me, just like that, out of the blue.
‘I just want you to know that I miss you. Really miss you. I miss our time together. I miss your smile . . . That way you touch me when I’m sad; how you calm me down after a tough day, and you’d bring my smile back.’
He watched as she reached into her bag and pulled out a tissue. ‘I miss you too, pretty lady,’ he whispered. ‘So, so much.’ He put his palm against Hiro, could feel the slight heat rising in his hand.
Claire snivelled into the tissue and then tucked it into her sleeve. ‘I . . . Jez . . . I . . . just . . . I know that I said that too much has gone on. That we can’t be together. I told you that you should move on. But . . .’
Jeremy waited. The butterflies that had been in his stomach had flitted now to his chest. He felt how he had when he had been lowering the imaginary ring. But, what? Her flighty mind that he had loved so much . . .
‘The thought of you moving on? We’d begun to build a nest,’ Claire said, just as Jez was tempting himself into dropping to the ground and grabbing both of her shoulders and shaking her. ‘I . . . A friend told me . . .’ Claire did a little laugh-sob. ‘She said, “The grass may seem like it’s greener but the cows still shit in it.”’ And then she laughed properly. ‘I said, “Bullshit,” and then realised what I’d said.’ She was playing with her fingernails, picking.
Jeremy’s phone buzzed in his pocket. It buzzed again, silently ringing. He desperately fondled around, trying to get it shut off. Sneaking a peek around the other side of the tree, he could see Kathryn standing down on the path to the valley with her phone to her ear, her clean blonde hair bright in the light. He cursed himself for telling her to meet him here. He cursed himself again. The phone had stopped buzzing. Kathryn was looking around, holding her phone. God, please don’t call my name. Please. Please, God.
He looked down at the top of Claire’s head. She was turned slightly to the side, to the empty place beside her. She was stroking Hiro’s trunk, as she had when she first christened the ancient tree. ‘Jez . . . I just want you to know that I still care for you very much. I come here sometimes because of how much I miss you, just to feel close to you. I even walk through the bracken by myself! But . . .’
Why that word again? Was that the worst word to ever hear in a conversation, even if it’s an imagined version of yourself that it was addressed to? ‘I don’t know.’ Claire put her head into her hands, through her hair.
Jeremy looked at what Kathryn was doing. She was walking up and down like an abandoned fawn. She was looking at her phone as she stomped. Probably checking some app to see what the weather is like where she is, he thought. He sent her a quick text.
With you in a minute. J x
He wasn’t sure what to do next. He wasn’t sure which of the girls he wanted to go away. He wasn’t sure if he should climb higher into the tree and just hide. It crossed his mind to swan dive from the branch – although he quickly batted that thought away. He wasn’t sure if he wanted to see Claire at all, now that he had actually seen her, actually her. He did. But he didn’t. But he . . . really did.
‘Sometimes I just want to hold you. To hear your voice,’ Claire continued into her hands. ‘Even now I can feel your arm around my shoulders, whispering those sweet nothings that I realise now that I took for granted.’ She lifted her head to the empty seat. ‘I did take you for granted, Jez. I thought that you couldn’t give me what I wanted from life. And then I realised that the only thing that I’d ever wanted was what I had. With you. You.
‘I know now that if I hadn’t left then neither of us would have felt all of that pain. This year’s been . . . not great. I can’t help but think of all the things that we would have done, the things that we’ve missed out on.’ She was gesticulating now, really gesturing her feelings. Jeremy was smiling through a frown. ‘I haven’t seen a single sunrise. Not one.
‘I can still feel our connection, somehow; especially in this place. You loved me without question – only now I can see how precious that is. A part of me hoped that you’d be here. But I know that I wouldn’t have been able to say these things to you. And that you don’t want to see me anyway. I wrote you a letter, but I didn’t know what I wanted to tell you, because I don’t want to give you hope. But then the next minute I do want to be with you. Want to see you every day, Jez. The way that the sun used to rise and set with you.
‘I just can’t help thinking that I’ve made the biggest mistake that I’ll ever make. Will I always feel that way? Forever?’ Claire pulled the tissue out of her sleeve and dabbed her eyes. ‘Anyway.’ Pulling her pumps on, Claire stood up, one hand on Hiro’s trunk. ‘I know that it’s not meant to be. That it’s probably too late. If it was meant to be, if somehow Hiro had drawn us so close together once then he could do so again. It’s a stupid thought, but I was just thinking . . . Stupid.’
Claire pulled her bag over her shoulder and brushed down her dress. She looked around, remembering. Jeremy wondered what Claire was staring at on the ground next to Hiro’s roots. His bare feet were curling over the edge of the thick bough.