Latest Winner: The Monkey Puzzle Tree

By Gwenda Major

Gwenda says: I live in the Lake District and have been writing both short stories and novels for many years. Inspiration for a story can come from the most unlikely places – in this case from my local graveyard.  Imagination supplies the rest. 

In the fading light of the graveyard the burning end of the spliff was the only bright point in the gloom.  

“Hand it over, mate. My turn.” Rob plucked the roll-up from his friend’s fingers and took a deep drag. He giggled. “What did you tell your mam?”

“Same as usual. Youth club – playing ping pong.”

“Ping pong? Ping pong? Whatyouonabout?”

“Ping pong. Table – you know – tennis.” Tommo sounded unsure now. “What about you anyway?”

“What about me?”

“What did you tell your mam?”

“Nothing. She didn’t ask. Never does.”

“Sweet.”

“Yeah.”

From the main road the shriek of a siren swelled and subsided. Around them loomed the grotesque silhouettes of the huge pine trees. 

“Look at that,” Rob said, his words coming out slurred.

“What?”

“That. That tree over there.” Rob sat up on the bench where he’d been sprawling and tried to focus his eyes properly. Gravestones stuck up from the earth like black teeth all around them. It was quiet. The perfect place to smoke a spliff – which they did most Friday nights. No-one seemed to notice. And they weren’t hurting anybody.

“That’s a monkey puzzle,” Tommo announced authoritatively after a lengthy pause.

“You what?”

“A monkey puzzle. It’s a tree.”

“I know it’s a tree. But it’s a fucking weird tree.”

“Yeah well they are weird – monkey puzzle trees. Very weird.”

The two sat in silence for a while, peacefully passing the spliff from hand to hand. Apart from the distant rumble of traffic there was no sound. Rob closed his eyes, drifted off for a few minutes.

“My mam used to scare me with it,” Tommo said eventually.

Rob roused himself and peered at his friend’s face. “How d’ya mean?”

“When we walked home through the graveyard – she’d tell me to keep quiet when we got near the monkey puzzle, else I’d grow a monkey tail.”

“She never?”

“She did. And I believed her.”

“Oh, Tommo – don’t look now but there’s something growing out of your arse.”  Rob had staggered to his feet and was dancing around the bench making monkey noises, arms swinging from side to side. Then he tripped over his own feet and fell to the ground.

“Shit!”

“Serves you right. Moron.”

“Just a bit of fun, mate,” Rob muttered, rubbing his leg as he levered himself up.

“Anyway, my gran said that wasn’t right,” Tommo continued.

“See – just your mam being daft.”

“No – my gran said you have to keep quiet because the Devil lives up the monkey puzzle and if he hears you, he’ll come down and get you.”

“She said that?”

“Swear to God.”

“And you believed her?”

“Nah. She was probably pissed at the time. She liked a drink – or two or three, my gran.”

“I’m getting cold,” Rob said suddenly. “Come on.”

“Where’re we going?”

“Come on,” Rob repeated, following the narrow path between the gravestones to the brow of the hill which was dominated by the silhouette of the huge monkey puzzle tree. The sun was setting now, lending an apricot glow to the sky. Like a vast spiky umbrella, the tree’s branches seemed to lean down to stroke the scatter of gravestones at its base. Each branch ended in a gentle curve just like the end of a monkey’s tail.  Rob reached the tree first and flung his arms around the vast gnarled trunk.

“Here, Tommo – hold hands.”

“I thought you’d never ask.”

“Ha ha. Here – reach round.” The two friends joined hands around the tree, their faces pressed into the trunk, breathing noisily.

“I dare you to climb it,” Tommo said after they let go. “Like a monkey.”

“You’re having a laugh. There’s no branches at the bottom. Look.”  

They both gazed up at the full height of the tree.

“It’s fucking enormous. It must be 20 metres.”

“More like 30 – or 40.”

“Whatever – it’s big.”  Tommo reached out and grasped one of the branches.  “Ow! That hurt.”

“Course it fucking hurt. It’s spiky. Anyone could see that.”

“Well thanks for the warning, mate.” Tommo was getting bored.

Rob gazed upwards to where the mass of branches formed a whorl high up in the air. Tipping his head back made him feel dizzy and he shut his eyes.

When he opened them again he stumbled and fell on to his knees against one of the swollen gnarled knuckles at the base of the monkey puzzle.

Under the canopy of the huge tree the quiet had taken on an intensity that made Rob’s ears buzz.  All the colour had leached from the sky now. He was surrounded by the dark humps of the gravestones and he felt cold, a deep cold that seemed to chill his bones.

“Tommo?” he said, peering around in the darkness. No answer.

“Tommo? Come on mate. Stop farting about. I don’t like it here. I’m going home.” Still no answer. If Tommo was trying to scare him it was working. Rob managed to get himself on to both knees and carefully turned his head from side to side. All he could make out were the shadowy slabs of the gravestones.

“Tommo. Please. Where are you? Come on, mate.” But this time Rob didn’t really expect a reply.

Rob felt a vibration through his left hand, still touching the trunk of the tree.

Then he realised that the curved arms of the monkey puzzle were trembling slightly. There was an almost imperceptible tremor – as if someone was slowly beginning to climb down the tree. Frozen in terror he waited.