Sally walked along the trunk of her favourite willow, curling her bare toes around the ridges in the bark. Unlike the others in the row that still stood upright, the angle of this one was only just enough to lift the crown off the ground, and it was here that she found a place to sit, curled up in a hollow of greenery that created a veil between her and the rest of the world. She leant back against the once-pollarded branches and closed her eyes.
The willow trees had stood there since before the house was built. Well not these exact trees, but their ancestors, the same way the house had been passed down through the generations. Each made their changes, a new branch here, a roof extension there, but they seemed to happen naturally and without fuss, in harmony with the surrounding landscape. Sally took comfort from their timeless nature; even when her parents seemed to move house every six months and she never knew where or how she would spend her next holiday, this place remained the same. The house, the willow trees by the river, the garden that grew everything that was needed, and her aunt here to look after it all.
She could almost see Rosemary now, coming out of the back door, wiping her wet hands on her apron as she went to pick a few herbs to add to the dinner, or throwing the scraps to the chickens, or tying in a plant that had flopped over. She always seemed to be busy, going somewhere, doing something, and yet if you asked her for anything she had all the time in the world. She was so much a part of the landscape that it was almost impossible to imagine it without her.
But it must be possible, because the house, the garden and the willow trees were still here, and Rosemary wasn’t.
Sally pulled her t-shirt down to stop a leaf tickling her, then stroked her stomach absent-mindedly. It seemed ironic that the time she most wanted, needed her aunt, it was too late. All Sally’s dreams of university, then marriage, then finding and doing up a nice home before having children, had somehow gone completely awry. Well she had done everything on her list, and in the right order, but somehow she had expected to stay married. Not have her husband move out the day she had discovered she was pregnant.
Oh hell, it was like living in a nightmare. She still hadn’t got over the shock of coming home from work, all excited after her lunchtime test had proved positive, to find he had simply gone. A half empty wardrobe, a note on the table. It took her reading his neat, controlled handwriting three times before she could take it in. He had met someone else, had been living with them all those times he was in the States for work, and he wanted a divorce. He would be in touch, she could keep the house and everything left in it but that was it. A clean break was best for both of them, especially as he would be living and working in Dallas from now on.
She wanted to cry and cry, but protectiveness over her unborn child made her angry. She had never realised he was such a coward.
She grabbed at the branch that was tickling her and broke it off. It tore a little, but she stuck the cut end in her mouth and chewed on it. Somehow it helped ease her headache a little. Had she been blind? Had he tried to tell her? She racked her brain in her despair, but never once had said he was unhappy, that he wanted something different in life. Well that wasn’t quite true, she was aware he would have preferred a stylish flat with a view, not an end-terrace with garden, but he seemed to go along with it quite happily. That was the best they could afford in London anyway.
Rosemary had tried to warn her once. Said he was very driven. Too like Sally’s parents. Sitting here in the timeless embrace of the willow tree Sally was finally starting to realise what Rosemary had meant.
Opening her eyes she realised it was getting dark. The full moon was just rising, its huge golden orb just visible above the horizon. That marked the fourth month then. She supposed that made sense; the morning sickness had passed, and few of her clothes fitted any more. It was time to stop ignoring it, or assume that it would go away again of its own accord, and find something new to wear. This t-shirt was hopeless. Probably she should see a doctor or nurse or something too, and she would need to sort things out at work because there was no way she could complete her trainee manager apprenticeship with a baby coming, let alone go on to a full-time position next year. Maybe she should even tell David, although she couldn’t work out what that would achieve.
Rosemary was the one person she really wanted to tell. That unlimited support, the acceptance without questions or arguments. To have her child grow up here, at least in the holidays, Rosemary passing on the same skills she had once taught Sally; that was what Sally wanted. She remembered helping in the vegetable garden or collecting eggs from the chickens, stomping around in over-sized wellies, but mostly she had liked being by the river. Weaving chunky willow branches for hurdles, or thinner ones for fish traps or baskets. Planting withies in the mud to replace the trees that had grown old and split or fallen over. Learning to swim in the water that ran clear in summer, until she and her aunt got in and stirred up the muddy bottom. Even occasionally as a special treat, when the evenings were as warm and still as this one, swimming in the moonlight. “Don’t tell my sister!” was all Rosemary had said.
She threw the chewed twig into the water, then watched it float off downstream, temporarily breaking up the reflection of the rising moon.
Why not? she thought. There weren’t any rules against swimming when pregnant were there? She wasn’t planning to drink the water!
Walking carefully back down the willow trunk, she let her feet find their way along the old path to the river’s edge. Luckily Rosemary had kept using it until just over a month ago so Sally had no problems with overgrown nettles. A hand dipped in the water showed her it was pleasantly cool but not icy. There was a new bench nearby, so she laid her clothes on it before plunging into the water. A duck quacked loudly, then all went quiet again.
She must have put on more weight than she realised; the feeling of freedom and weightlessness was more noticeable than usual and helped her relax for the first time in nearly three months. It was cold, but she seemed to be developing an internal heating system. Making her way upstream first, she thought she heard a rustle in the reeds. Hopefully just another duck, but she couldn’t be sure, so she turned and headed back to her starting point. After a pause she went downstream as far as the shallows. Better not walk on her hands and risk bumping her tummy, so she just sat on a rock and watched the river, her arms curled around her legs, until she was ready to swim back to her clothes and get out.
As she ran dripping up the path to the house, an owl hooted some distance away, sounding just like Tom, who lived next door to Rosemary, used to when he imitated them. She hadn’t heard owls in years. It called again as the door shut behind her.
The next day Sally spent much like the previous one, and the one before that. Sorting through stuff and cleaning. In the absence of a will, her mother would inherit everything and it was all to be sold at auction as quickly as possible after the legalities were completed. Unless a private buyer was found, saving the hassle and expense. Sally had been volunteered to go and do the job of sorting out personal effects, the place apparently giving her mother ‘the creeps’. She had taken a week’s leave from work and headed out into the wilds of Cambridgeshire.
“Don’t take a whole week off, darling,” her mother had said. “Just a day or two will be fine I’m sure. Next weekend, maybe. Then you could still have a proper holiday in Texas with David.”
But Sally liked Rosemary’s house. Always had. Uneven floors that creaked and single glazed windows didn’t bother her, they added character. Ignoring the fact that she wouldn’t be welcome, her mother being still in denial over her forthcoming divorce, what was a week here compared to sweltering in the heat and having to dress for dinner? If nothing else it gave her the chance to say goodbye to the place. To spend one last holiday here, in freedom, before she had to face reality.
So far Sally had tackled the most straightforward areas, such as kitchen, dining room and hallway. It had been a while since a thorough Spring Clean had been done, since Rosemary was a bit like Mole when the sun shone, and Sally was aware from her own recent house buying experiences that it could be presented for sale rather better. Today she decided she must tackle the living room, putting off the desk full of papers in the study in case there were unpaid bills or anything else she couldn’t cope with. She still dreaded finding anything too personal that might force her into having to make a decision; it wasn’t her house, she was just looking after it for a week. Luckily the physical work kept her occupied enough that she stopped dwelling on how she was going to pay the mortgage, be a single parent, earn some money to live on, tell her mother, and generally survive without her aunt’s comforting presence and down to earth advice at the end of a phone line.
She didn’t immediately notice the change in the weather, until she went to empty the ash from the fire grate and found the wind almost did it for her. The sky was completely different to that morning, filled with towering grey clouds, and as she stood watching the first spots of rain began to fall. Then realising Rosemary would chide her for being careless, she hurried back in to start closing windows.
It was scary being alone in the house once the storm really broke an hour or two later. Rain lashed down, hitting the windows in great pelting waves, and soon after she heard rumbles of thunder. From upstairs she could normally see for some distance across the flat Cambridgeshire countryside, but when lightening struck a nearby power cable with a green flash, she was plunged into semi-darkness. She screamed, then found a pillow to hug, feeling about six again like on her first visit, and wanting Rosemary more than ever. How could she possibly do everything that was expected of her?
It’s only a thunderstorm, get on with it, she told herself before going to light a burner with a match so she could have a cup of tea and cook a late dinner.
Opening the curtains the next morning revealed the full extent of the storm’s destruction. At the front of the house it looked like the road was blocked by tree debris, and the garden had suffered some serious damage. Plants usually survive though, she remembered Rosemary saying. Just prune out the damaged bits, shape anything left unbalanced, and by next year you won’t even know it happened.
After breakfast she made the decision to don gardening gear, welly boots and stout trousers, and see what she could do.
She noticed the absence of the willow like a great gaping hole. Well it hadn’t disappeared, it just wasn’t a tree any more. More of a log waiting to clog up the river and rot back into the ground. It had been such a lovely place to sit, comforting and restful. For a short time she had almost felt as if she could cope. Willow trees were supposed to be flexible, bending with the winds of change, rooting wherever they found ground. Yet this one had gone. Dead. Well dying, destroyed by a simple summer storm, just because Rosemary wasn’t here any more to look after it.
She stared at its now prone form, feeling the loss acutely, letting tears gradually well up and then roll down her cheeks. Some caretaker she was, couldn’t even look after her favourite tree. Had everything ended with Rosemary?
“Good morning,” a voice called from behind her. “Saw you were here, I was just clearing the road so I thought I’d stop by. Say hello properly.”
Sally tried to surreptitiously wipe her cheeks as she turned.
Tom. Still here. Still living next door. Not as much older than her as she remembered, doubly good looking and with the self-confidence of someone who was on his home territory.
“Sorry about that tree.” He nodded at the willow. “Do you want a hand with it? Bit cold for going in the water today.”
Then her cheeks flamed as she realised it might have been his owl call after all. “Thank you, but Rosemary wouldn’t have got wet, so I see no reason why I should,” she said tartly.
“Sorry, didn’t mean to offend you. Thought you might want it chopped up for firewood, that was all. I’ve got the chainsaw in the Landy by your gate.”
“Since the house is being put up for sale, not much need.”
He stared at her for a minute before answering. “Now why would you want to do that? Rosemary always said she hoped you’d be happy here after her. That you knew what was what.”
Sally’s world almost twisted on its axis for a moment and she felt light-headed. She grabbed hold of a nearby branch to steady herself.
“Why didn’t she write a will then?”
“Didn’t she? Probably one of those things she never got around to. She meant to though, talked about you. Sorry, I’d forgotten you were only a dozen years younger than me, I remembered you as a kid still and Rosemary talked about you that way. I couldn’t see you properly in the dark.”
She started to breathe easier, taking her time until she felt able to stand unaided again.
Rosemary wanted her to live here. Wanted to leave the place to her. Might have even written a will that simply hadn’t been found yet.
Or if not, maybe she could sell the London house that she was dreading returning to, and use the money to buy this house from her mother. Be flexible, she told herself. Put down roots.
She looked at the willow tree again; clearly it needed her as much as she needed it. “Okay, I might be wanting some firewood, but the sycamore from the roadside will burn better. Lets just take what is going to be in the way of the path or the river, and leave the rest to decay gracefully. Some withies can be planted in its place and there’ll be a new tree here before this one grows up.” She patted her stomach, feeling suddenly that there was hope after all. Rosemary had gone, but the willows were still here. Timeless, and ageless. She was the next generation; it was meant to be her house, not her mother’s. Somehow she must do what all the previous occupants of the house had done and live off the land, weave willow, and use her business degree to see if she could earn enough money to stay right here.
He grinned at her. “Okay, if that’s what you want.”
“And one more thing,” she said, standing up tall. “I want a living willow changing room woven around the bench. I’m not having you watching me as my belly gets huge!”
“Damn. And there was I thinking your kid might need someone to teach it to swim. You spent half the night sat on a rock.”
Sally grabbed the branch she had been holding and threw it at him. “You wretch! You said you couldn’t see me.”
He ducked and it caught him on the hip, making him laugh. “I lied. Welcome home, Sally.”