Waving in the Wind
Heather was twenty-three, and not long married when she heard voices in the garden one night. It seemed, she told the doctors, that they came from under the hawthorn tree, or the ash tree, and sometimes from behind the splendid magnolia, which broke her heart in the spring by blossoming only days before the march winds began to blow. A few hours of those cruel breezes and the delicate leaves floated helplessly to the ground.
In the end they took her to hospital. Outside the window of the ward there was a rockery, and yellow painted oak benches – but no trees. Within weeks there were no more voices. She was discharged, and although she had to take medication for six months after the so-called psychotic episode, by the time she was twenty-five Heather was declared well, and about to become a mother.
Not to decry the good intentions of the psychiatrist… but neither Rod nor Heather believed she`d had what you would call a real mental illness. Rod found it feasible that there really had been people, (possibly a couple whose families forbade them to meet,) who sheltered in what they called fondly `our Arboretum,` outside the bedroom window, murmuring sweet nothings, occasionally breaking into passionate moans, which was why Heatherhadto open the window and shout at them to be quiet. After shouting, she would lean into the darkness, and see no-one.
`Perhaps,` Heather suggested, `they heard me and ran away!`
She was seventy, as was Rod when they decided to leave Manchester and move to London. Rod was retiring from his work as an architect.
Heather was sorry to retire. For years she had taught English as a Foreign Language. Saying goodbye to her last class of students made her cry. Mrs Haq the doctor`s wife, Calin the computer engineer from Bucharest, Sudanese actor Hameis, her favourite students, brought her a bejewelled black elephant from the Oxfam shop as a farewell gift.
Waving in the Wind – Deborah Freeman 2
They all wrote on a card, its cover saying Thank You in thirty-nine languages. `Without you our new lives in England would have been so much harder!`
And now Rod and Heather were to have new lives of their own. They first viewed the flat, Eleven Forest Court, on a cold December afternoon. They hardly noticed the shrubs and trees outside, in the space between the new-build block and the tube line.
New-build and sophisticated. Second floor. Lift, underground garage, walk-in showers, lights in the ceiling and underfloor heating. A miracle of engineering and architecture, everyone said, and best thing of all? The station, its track parallel with the side of the building. Yards away.
Parkside Wood Tube Station.
A park at the edge of a wood? Or a wood beside a park? That first December day they saw neither park nor wood. Looking out of the wide windows they saw the bridge, joining the two sides of the line. Through the double glazing they heard the trains, starting or slowing, nothing high speed, coming in and out of the station.
Our very own station, they told everyone. We love the sound of the trains, they said, and meant it. The children congratulated their parents on the skill of the downsizing. What could be better? This new-build of seventeen flats, fronted by a lawn, with low laurels and a wall for toddlers to climb over. Forest Court.
A Chinese family lived on the first floor. Their veranda distinguished them from the rest of the flats from the outset. Their little girl wore pink bonnets and white shoes, her glossy black hair hanging in a fringe over her cute face. Heather put plant-pots and a tub on her small veranda, but the Chinese veranda was filled from the outset with tubs of herbs. You could feel the healing in the air, just by walking past. The grandmother played the piano elegantly. Chopin, and Schubert `impromptus’.
Waving in the Wind – Deborah Freeman 3
There was an electric gate. When a car nosed up to it, it opened automatically. One day the Chinese grandmother set out for the gate, her reserved looking husband beside her, and collapsed. She fell on the ground, just where a car would be, except they weren’t a car, they were people, one about to die. Heather watched from her veranda, as the woman lay in a crumpled heap, and the man shouted for help, shaking jerkily.
Each flatholder had been given an electronic key fob. You were supposed to hold the key toward the gate, press a grey button, and hey presto, the gate would slide open. Except on this occasion, with someone dying on the ground in front of it the gate wouldn`t open. So Heather, (Rod was at The National Gallery) dialled nine nine nine. Now the grandfather knelt beside his wife, crying out, waving his arms. It was windy. Above them it was for a moment as if the ash, sycamore, the giant horse chestnut were alive. Their branches gesticulated frantically. Witnesses.
Ambulance men tried to scale the side gate, but that wouldn`t open either, so one of them took a hammer, and opened it with a clanging so loud that the sound sliced through Heather`s head, axe-sharp. After the clangs came an aftersound, like a human voice but sharper, more desperate. Her brain felt bruised. Though Rod suggested later that however traumatic the event had seemed to the onlooker, it probably only took moments for the gate to be opened.
`Relax,` he said.
`Don`t tell me to relax.` She looked more stressed than he had seen in years. `If the gate hadbeen opened a few minutes earlier? Might they have revived the poor woman?`
Living in Forest Court was like living in a small village. There was a council, and a Board of Directors. The Chair of the Board was called James Steel. He was an engineer who had been a builder. Three months after the tragic death, there was a meeting of all the members of the village. They met in a pub called The Apple Tree. Heather addressed James Steel.
Waving in the Wind – Deborah Freeman 4
`How we can be expected to live, ` she asked urgently, `in a place where we can`t control our own front door!` He explained carefully that the outer gate was not anyone`s individual front door. The mechanism was complex, so he and only he must be the keeper of the emergency code. He was an engineer, he understood metals, locks, keys and their codes.
From then on, that clang, metal on metal kept echoing in Heather`s head. Sometimes it was so loud, she had to hold her ears. Rod comforted her. Don`t worry. We`re all shocked and upset, we wouldn`t be normal if we weren`t.
But it happened again, and kept happening, that Heather would be woken by the loud metallic sound, even as the nights got shorter, the days longer, and it was spring, then late spring, and even as the sun shone more and more so that most of the village folk, the village of Forest Court, got on with their lives, and paid no more attention to the question of the iron gate.
In May, she had a dream. She was in a wood picking bluebells when a branch fell from a tree above her and hit her head. She woke with a jump, trembling.
Everyone said moving house at seventy was the second most stressful thing you could experience. The first was a bereavement. But they did try to concentrate on the fun, the stimulation of their new lives. Two or more mornings a week Heather would be up early, leaving Forest Court (through the side gate,) climbing the twenty-six steps of the bridge, then down twenty-four on the other side of the track, through the automated ticket machine with her Freedom Pass, and onto the platform to wait for a train to take her to town.
In London Town she became more adventurous as the weather improved. She went to Art Galleries, bookshops, parks and theatres, and came home culturally enriched. This was a city like no other. It had a history of a thousand years and was the home of every great invention in the world! (An usher at the National told her this, at a matinee of a play set in nineteen twenty-seven.)
Waving in the Wind – Deborah Freeman 5
In June she encountered James Steel on the station platform. He stepped cheerfully off the train she was about to board. He was a short, stocky man, with thick grey hair and a rectangular face. He wore rimless glasses. He beamed jovially at Heather, and spoke with bonhomie and a kind of pride.
`Our railway system is the oldest in the world, ` he enthused. `Did you know?`
`It started way back in the sixteenth century. Old wagonways on wooden rails, that`s what they had, here. Do you like living in London?`
`Yes thank you.`
`Flat comfortable? Do the trains disturb you?`
`Yes thank you. No. We love them.`
Then he pointed to the gap between the train track and Forest Court, to the mass of trees and shrubs that were flourishing this summer, ash, oak, sycamore, privet, a veritable natural arbour in a wood made of stone and steel…..
`We need to keep an eye on these, though,` he said, narrowing his eyes, surveying the urban oasis.
`I like the trees.`
`Give them half a chance,` he warned, `they`d overrun us. It would take them a decade or so to overwhelm Forest Court, but they could damage the train tracks in months. In fact,` he peered at the branches above their heads, the leaves blowing innocently in the breeze, `they need cutting back. I`ll call Transport for London in the morning.’
Heather felt the blood rush to her face, and her heart began to pound. She felt suddenly protective towards these innocent trees and shrubs, caught as they were between the rail track and Forest Court.
She nodded a polite goodbye and turned to get on the train. She sat down as the doors closed. The train moved off with a hum and a clicking sound. She looked at her fellow-passengers, their shoes, their bags, their faces. A couple stood protectively over their baby, secure in a buggy, its tiny face staring up at the collection of people, bright little eyes moving back and forth, watching, watching.
A homeless man came through the carriage, thin, pale, bald, wearing a tattered denim jacket, sleeves in shreds. She pulled out her purse and handed him a ten pound note. Thank you, bless you, he sounded stunned, and everyone looked away. For a moment neither she nor the homeless man existed at all.
Waving in the Wind – Deborah Freeman 6
By July Heather was beginning to wonder, in the moments of distraction that come just as you fall asleep, or in the moments of waking up, whether they might have made a mistake. Moving to London at their time of life, from the suburb where the cycle of their lives ran from magnolia to rhododendrons, from rhododendrons to roses and geraniums, then on to dahlias. Heather had particularly loved the smoke bush, which really did look like clouds of purple smoke, and cast soft cushions of colour over the garden, making every autumn beautiful. Not to mention the crimson berries that decorated the garage wall.
But here, now it was high summer. London in sunshine was four degrees hotter than anywhere in the country. The spaces between the living room window and the tube line were lush with forestry. Branches sprouted where there had been none. On the sloping lawn below the side windows, squirrels frolicked. They sprinted up the horse chestnut tree in seconds, and swung delicately from branch to twig. Flying sprites of nature, joyful in the wind.
In May, blossom had adorned the horse chestnut tree, tiny white flowers, pink at the base, floating gracefully down to cover the grass like confetti. Now, its leaves showed crustiness, browning at the edges, and spiky green conker cases could be seen. Not autumn yet, but it would come. Now, Heather thought, during these summer months, now, if I`m not at peace now, I can never be. She lay in bed, determined to remain calm, and happy. At four in the morning there were birds already sounding. And the night trains, which Transport for London had set going, were no more than the sound of a different sea, gentle through the double glazing, never harsh even when the windows were open….
Heather stood on the small slope of grass, which was on the Forest Court side of the wire fence. On the other side was a thicket of shrubbery, with a clump of trees so thick you couldn`t actually see the trains that were passing.
Waving in the Wind – Deborah Freeman 7
She turned to leave Forest Court, pressing the green knob to the right of the small gate, which she then pulled open to let herself through. She looked up at the majestic horse chestnut, planted a hundred years ago. Under its branches on one side the iron stairway led up to the bridge over the tube line. Paint was peeling off here and there. She climbed the steps with her eyes cast down, witnessing their strength. She thought of the people who had worked here, building this. Fifty, sixty, seventy years ago. Hammering, carrying, perhaps dropping huge slabs of iron and stone. Or was it all done by machines, even then?
She imagined the sound of the men who worked here. No, she heard it. The top of each step was reinforced with a steel covering, on which were impressed rows of letters. Did anyone now wonder what the letters meant, or still mean? Messages, perhaps?
She stood on the bridge, as a father came along, leading a small boy. The child stood, safe between his father`s protective body, and the parapet.
`Tains! See tains!` the tot said excitedly.
Heather turned to look back at the stuccoed side of Forest Court, through the windows into her own living room, where moments ago she had been sipping tea.
Beneath, below, around, lay the battlefield. Trees, shrubs, grass, squirrels, the odd night fox, mice perhaps, rats certainly. She stood still, like an admiral viewing his troops before a battle. The trees stood tall, so disciplined, so brave, and they would wait, she knew, take their time. Their day would come.
Copper beech, beech, sycamore, plane, ash, oak, trapped between Forest Court and the train line, and all they can do is wave in the wind. For now – all they can do.