Drawing by Judith Wolfe
The Bonsai Tree
He'd been settling down in front of the box with a half bottle when the doorbell went and there was Katy, baby In one arm, ten pound turkey in the other. John stood at her side looking apologetic:
- "Go home Katy"
- "Daddy, you have to make an effort"
- She'd been calling him that for months now. He wasn't sure if it was Mary's dying that had started it or the new greenhouse she'd had built onto the back of the kitchen - conservatory as Katy called it. He snorted with laughter watching the three of them still standing there, feeling the effects of the whisky in his stomach.
- "Make an effort ? Whit for ?"
- He'd let her in and sat on the sofa, taking the line of least resistance. Occasionally throughout the evening and next morning she would lift away the glass on the table beside him and dump the baby in his lap, saying loudly and clearly as though he were deaf:
"Look Daddy, it's your Granddaughter"
- He could tell she thought it was good therapy for him, the way she waved it about like magic wand, expecting him to break into proud grandfather smiles. She liked playing at happy families, couldn't bear anything not to be perfect. Like the shirt he'd worn on Christmas morning. It'd been a bit crumpled and Katy had practically ripped it off his back as soon as he walked downstairs:
- "Daddy !"
- She'd taken it and steamed and pressed with the iron, all the time looking him up and down, saying:
- "You're looking awfully thin Daddy. Are you sure you're eating properly ?"
It was like a speech impediment with her - "are you sure you're eating properly ?" whenever she opened her mouth, until every time he lifted the tin opener he heard her saying it and it put him clean off everything except a wee half. She'd battered around in the kitchen all morning, not letting anyone in. Every so often the door would open and a belch of steam and food smells would hit his face making his stomach churn. He'd eaten as much as he could of the dinner, thinking it was the main hurdle of the day. then she'd brought out the presents. He'd sent them money by post, but Katy was the type who started buying for next year in the January sales so he should have expected the bloody great parcel she gave him. It was heavy and jagged with so many lumps and bumps she'd had to use yards and yards of sellotapeŽ. It took at least fifteen minutes to open and all the time he was pulling and tearing with useless fingers at the layers of tape and glossy paper, she was watching him.
- "Can you guess what it is ?", she asked like a six year old. When he finally got down to the last layer of paper, she gave the baby to John and sat back, smiling. He grinned weakly, scared to take his eyes off it, until the grin solidified on his face.
- "Well ?"
- The baby started to cry, but she didn't move.
- "It's a Bonsai tree, Daddy."
- "Ah can see that."
- He looked at John who shook his head and stuck a bottle in the baby's mouth. He looked at the tree. It was an ugly looking thing, about twelve inches tall with a trunk like a piece of old rope that split and twisted like fingers on an arthritic hand into clumps of leathery leaves, so dark green they were almost black. It was in a blue pot like a sugar bowl with Chinese writing on the side.
- "Whit dae ah want wi a Bonsai tree ?"
- "It's a hobby Daddy."
- He put it on the centre of the table, refilled their wine glasses, poured himself a whisky and turned the TV on to "Sportsman of the Year". She didn't say anything - just pressed her lips together and started to clear up the dishes. He crossed his arms and gazed unwaveringly at the screen. By the time they left at eight thirty, she'd scrubbed the kitchen floor, hoovered the carpet, and polished the TV screen - while he was watching it. John said goodbye while she waited in the car. Feeling a bit guilty, he'd waved as the car moved off. The tables was still opened out for dinner in the centre of the room and sitting on the middle of it was the cause of their early exit. He poured himself another whisky and lifted the glass towards the tree in a toast:
- "Here's tae you ya stunted dwarf".
- Then he got out last night's half bottle along with the one he's reserved for Christmas Day.
He knew he was drinking too much for he'd had a couple of blackouts. Nothing major, just waking up on the floor of the bedroom some mornings wondering how he'd got there. He'd gone to the doctor about it and she' been too nice and asked too many questions he didn't want to answer. He got out as quickly as he could, promising to join the local rambling club and threw the prescription into the litter bin on the way to the off-licence. He preferred an eighteen year old malt to Valium.
It hadn't been so bad the first few weeks after she'd gone but then he'd stopped sleeping - just lay there all night thinking about the things they'd done together, the things she'd said, the sound of her voice, until it felt as though it was he who'd died and she who was still alive inside the empty shell of his skull. When he started to think like that he'd decided it was time to fulfil a lifelong ambition and get drunk every night on the best whisky the life-insurance could buy.
- He woke up on Boxing Day on the sofa, his head bursting and the TV still going full blast. He saw the tree on the table and it reminded him he should phone Katy and apologise again but then he knew she'd be round soon enough with a box of mince pies and a casserole dish full of "Turkey au Gratin". He lifted the tree and put it on the shelf by the window. The house used to be filled with plants, like a jungle it was, but he hadn't watered them and they'd died before winter. Katy had cleared them away one by one. He noticed with some satisfaction that this one was withered already. The trunks and branches had wires coiled around them like an elaborate cage. There was a plastic card stuck into the compost, so he lifted it and read:
- "Welcome to the fascinating world of Bonsai growing. This Bonsdai is a unique and valuable living tree, at least 40 years old and can be shaped and moulded by you into a thing of beauty."
- He looked at it and almost laughed then said:
- "A thing of beauty my arse."
- Then he pulled around the trunk tight in the centre and pushed it back with all the strength in his fingers until the bark started to split and the trunk twisted like a broken spine. He felt better then and decided to go for a walk until opening time.
He called Katy a week later.
- "Thought I might have seen you over by now. How's John and the baby?"
- It was a although she hadn't heard him. She just said:
- "How's your present ?"
- He looked over at the window, expecting to see a dead twig in the blue bowl. To his surprise, there was a bump like a carbuncle where he had bent the trunk, a small rough black spot with a pale green centre.
- "Oh, it's fine. A'm mouldin it intae a thing of beauty, jist like the card says."
- "There's no need to be sarcastic, Daddy."
- He wanted to say sorry, but he'd ruined it now so he said goodbye and walked over to the tree.. It seemed to have got bigger. He took one end of a branch that was wrapped in wire and twisted it hard, then he tightened the wire so it would stay that way.
- "Ye're an ugly auld thing aren't you ?", he said and gave it a drink from the glass of water he had in his hand. There wasn't much whisky in it.
- It still kept growing, as though it thrived on neglect. He tried to ignore it, but he couldn't resist going up to it once or twice a week and grabbing and twisting one of the branches then pouring whatever was in his glass into the pot, chuckling and saying:
- "Die, ya bastard."
- It always seemed that the next day an extra leaf had appeared or one of the branches seemed to have thickened and grown a little longer. Finally he stopped trying to kill it and decided to content himself with making it the ugliest most twisted life-form this side of Gardener's Question Time. Katy's visits became less frequent, which was a relief for she'd arrive unannounced, sit the baby in his lap, then walk around the room running her finger over the dust, sniffing at the kitchen and say:
- "Isn't she getting big ? She's the spitting image of you Daddy...Are you sure you're eating properly ?"
- After she'd left he'd look at the tree and think that he felt more for it than the child. He couldn't make up his mind which was growing quicker. Sometimes he'd pat one of the gnarled bumps on it's branches and say:
- "Aren't you getting big ?"
- He began to realise that in a funny sort of way it had a personality - the tree, that was....it was the way he'd moulded and shaped it. Sometimes after he'd had a few, he even saw things in the matted clump of trunk and branches - shapes like small animals, insects, people's faces. He could even have sworn that it moved once after he'd been staring at it for a while. When he slept at night, he didn't dream about Mary any more - he dreamt about the tree. It had a slit in its trunk that was shaped like a mouth and in his dreams it spoke to him. Sometimes it spoke softly in Mary's voice, asking him if he remembered this time and that time they'd had together and sometimes it had Katy's voice when it would go on and on asking him when he was going to pull himself together, when he was going to do the dishes - he hadn't had a dream he could/ remember in forty years, and now he was being nagged by a plant. He knew it had to be the drink . He got so that he was scared of falling asleep, so he'd go downstairs to the living-room instead, with a winter coat on over his pyjamas. He'd take his armchair, place it directly in front of the table where the Bonsai sat and he's talk to it for hours. At first it was all about Mary but after a while it was anything that came into his head - all the things that had been stuffed up there for months with no-one to tell it to, things about people he knew or news reports he read in the papers and couldn't get out of his head:
- "There was this woman - drove her car round a bend and there in front of her was a lorry on the wrong side of the road. She went straight under it at seventy miles an hour - decapitated...an ye know Big John ? Lives two blocks down ? His dog wis run over last week an he's gone tae pieces about it. Some people jist cannae cope."
- He'd look up while he was talking and all the time it seemed as if he'd just missed something - a movement of one of the branches out of the corner of his eye, a quivering of the small leaves as though a breeze of air had just rushed through the house. When it was light and he was exhausted, he'd climb upstairs to bed, but even then he dreamed about the tree, until; he stopped going to bed altogether and fell asleep on the sofa, with the television still on.
- Then, one night, he dreamt that it got out of its pot. The leaves shook and quivered with energy, the branches twisted, contracted and flexed like muscles and with one jump it cleared the table and landed on the floor. It's roots shone black with moist earth and scuttled along the carpet like disembodied hands dragging the tree behind them. He was lying on the sofa, unable to move and all he could think about was the mess it was making on the floor - all that earth and mud. Katy would never believe him if he told her the truth - she would think he'd got drunk and knocked it over. He started to sweat as it got close to the bottom of the sofa and he saw it was bouncing gently, its branches coiling in readiness to jump. When it landed on his chest he tried to scream but couldn't . He started to push away the leaves that were settling around his face, suffocating him and when he woke up he was scrabbling at the air in front of him and shouting Mary's name. He sat up and looked at his watch. It was two in the morning and he knew he wouldn't go back to sleep. He stood up and began to move around the room without thinking, picking up old newspapers that had lain there for weeks since Christmas. Then he found a plastic bag in the kitchen and walked softly round the house, clearing it of the bottles, empty and full which sat on the tables and chairs and on the floors of every room. When he had filled the bag and put it in the dustbin, he lifted the Bonsai tree from the table and carried it into the back bedroom where he set it down on the sideboard. He thought of taking the new garden spade Katy had bought him and digging a grave for it and throwing it in and covering it up and forgetting about it, but the idea made his heart thud in his chest with panic. He left the room, lifted his coat from its peg in the hallway and went out into the darkness.
- He hadn't been out at this time of night for years. He gazed with a faint shock of memory at the quiet street, then walked up the hill towards the flats. From there he went down towards the main road where there used to be the tenements where he was born then down past the cross and the clock tower and right on through the city until he reached the river. The old quay was full of bars and clubs now and they were still full of people, mostly young, dressed in all sorts - black leather, yellow Lycra, blonde hair, green hair, all talking, laughing, drinking coffee, drinking wine, smoking cigarettes. Some of them were walking along the edge of the water arm in arm. They all stopped at the same spot where Mary and he had stopped forty years earlier - just before the bridge. He found a quiet spot where steps went down to the river and sat there for a long time, watching the clubs empty and the couples go home until one cafe owner brushed the pavement and put up as sign for Sunday lunch. He watched the sky getting lighter and looked across at the buildings on the other side of the river changing colour, then at the blocks of flats where there used to be a factory and the building sites where there had once been a railway line, then in the East the closed shipyards with the cranes black and still like dead insects and away in the distance the hills, same as they'd always been.
- It was mid-morning by the time he got home again. As he turned into his street, he saw Katy's car parked outside his house. The car door opened and she ran down the street towards him shouting:
- "Dad, Daddy...are you all right ?"
- Numb with tiredness, he walked past her to his front door. She took the baby from the car seat and followed him in, her voice never stopping:
- "Where the hell have you been ? I've been calling you since last night and I've been here since eight o'clock this morning. Don't you realise that we worry about you ? been out on another bender have we ?"
- He didn't answer, just opened the living room door for her. She dumped the car seat down and unclipped the belt. To his surprise the baby quickly struggled out and started crawling away from them. He tried to remember how long it had been since he last saw her while her voice went on in the background.
- "You've been out the whole night, haven't you ? Do you know what you look like ? An old tramp, that's what and this place smells, it's like a pigsty. If Mum was alive, she'd be ashamed of you. Do you think you're the only one whose suffering ?"..
- He said:
- She just kept on going, her voice getting shriller, until he felt like he was back in one of his dreams. He closed his eyes and tried to think how to explain, but it was impossible with her screaming like that and all he could do was try to shut it out. Then there was a scream and silence. He opened his eyes and Katy was looking at him with fright in her eyes. He realised the scream had come not from her but from the child. He could hear its whimpers coming from the back room. Katy got there before him and he saw the baby had pulled the cloth on the sideboard and the Bonsai tree had toppled over on top of her. It lay on the carpet, its exposed roots thick and wet and muddy and she just sat there, covered in potting compost. Katy just kept looking at the tree. It gave him the creeps the way she was staring at it, what with the dreams he'd been having, so he picked it up and put it back in the pot, covering up the roots and saying:
- "Ye'd better wash her down. Ah'll put the water heater on.."
- "I thought you'd thrown it away."
- "It kinda grew on me after a while. It's an ugly auld bastard, like me.."
- The baby began to scream then. he felt so tired he just sat down in a chair ands picked her up. he patted her on the head uselessly, saying:
- "There there now, a'm sorry, ah really am sorry..am sorry.."
- But she just cried louder and louder until Katy came over and took her in her arms and asked him if he wanted a cup of tea.
- The Bonsai tree died a few months later. He was sorry but he knew that he'd have had to get rid of it anyway, for every time the kid saw it she started to scream blue murder. He couldn't blame her after the trauma of having it fall on her like that. It was only natural, her being sensitive. he buried the tree in the garden. At first he missed it. When he walked into the living room sometimes, he expected it to be there the same way he'd expect Mary to be sitting on the sofa reading a book. The funny thing was, as soon as it had gone, the kid started acting like she felt the same. Every time Katy left her with him, she'd head straight for the back room, then wander round the house with a puzzled unhappy look on her face. She couldn't say it in words but he knew what she was looking for. One day, after Katy had gone, he picked her up and took her into the garden. He pointed to where he'd buried it and said:
- "It's gone intae the earth, hen..back tae the earth where it came from..."
He was sure she understood, for she never searched for it again.