RUNNER-UP: THE OLD MAN IN THE TREE

By Maureen Taylor

Maureen says: I live in the north of England close to the border. I started writing a relatively short time ago when I gave up full-time work. After many years steeped in legal and technical terms, it is a breath of fresh air now to be able to use language creatively to develop a piece of fiction; it is  even better when this takes the character into a different realm.

The start of the day was easy in the very first moment. Then one by one my cares and worries also began to wake from the forgetfulness of sleep and started to cling and weigh me down. What usually helped at this time was my first look out into the garden. There was always something comforting to look at: the progress of the spring shoots and the birds flitting back and forth, picking through the dead leaves for grubs. The long tails usually came to the feeder at the same time in the morning;  I had grown attached to them and I didn’t want to miss them, however dreadful those waking moments had been.  

On that particular day, as I drew open the curtains, the patch of winter irises caught my eye; they seemed to have crept up without me noticing them.  Then I noticed that along with the birds, there was an old man sitting quietly on the biggest branch of the ash tree. He wasn’t there when I went to bed so I really don’t know when he arrived. He seemed to be quite settled, resting his back against the trunk. His arms were folded and his hands tucked into the wide sleeves of his full grey robe. Still, I thought he might be feeling the chill with just his sandals on so I went out to ask if he wanted a hot drink or something to eat. He smiled and said, “Thank you. I am well.”   

I decided it was best to leave him alone. He seemed quite content and I was sure that when he was ready, he would pick up his journey to wherever he was going. I went about my usual routine and when I was walking back from the shop with the newspaper, I met Mr Boyle from around the corner. I told him about the old man in my tree and he was so pleased. “It’s good to hear he’s still around. We would miss him if he stopped coming,” he said.  

I wondered how I had never heard of the old man before. His presence was clearly welcomed by some, and the more I thought about it I began to feel quite privileged that he had decided to settle down with me for a while.  This was the first time I had felt important to anyone in a long time, and it was a nice feeling, I have to say.       

I was glad to see the old man was still in the tree when I got back home but Mr Ford, the man next door, was obviously not so keen to have him around. “You can’t let him stay there all day. He’s mad,” he said. Without waiting for a response he stomped back into his own house huffing and puffing. I was glad that he had gone because I couldn’t think of what to say to him. I was a bit confused given that Mr Boyle has spoken so warmly of our visitor. On balance, I decided, the old man wasn’t causing any harm. He probably just needed a rest and he would be on his way again soon. 

I felt a little pleased with myself for not just deferring to Mr Ford, even if I wasn’t able to think of a clever reply just at that moment. I called up to the old man in the tree, “Don’t worry. You are welcome to stay. I am just inside. Let me know if you need anything.”

“Thank you,” he said. “I am well.”    

With no other company, and nothing much else to do that day, I sat by the window with my sewing so that I could keep a watchful  eye on the old man. He seemed to be quite comfortable, but I was worried he could get tired as the day went on and his position on the branch might become more precarious. 

Part of me wanted him to stay and I certainly didn’t want him to leave without the chance to say goodbye. Throughout the day I offered him cups of tea. A sandwich. A cushion. Each was declined by the old man, saying, “Thank you.  I am well.”   

It was nice to have something else to think about, and the presence of the old man seemed to bring a sense of peace that I had not felt in a while. The longer he was there, the more I began to think that this wasn’t just a chance stop in a convenient place. It felt like he was as concerned about me as I was about him. 

As the afternoon wore on, I turned momentarily to my pattern and when I looked out again the old man was gone. I was so upset I hadn’t seen him go and I rushed out into the garden, hoping that he might just have gone for a walk around. He was nowhere to be seen, but the sinking sense of loss that began to prick my eyes was quickly overcome by the warm breeze that wrapped around me.  

I peered upwards into the sky and caught sight of a large grey bird circling high above. I closed my eyes and stretched out my arms. I felt that all my concerns and worries were being drawn away towards the bird in the sky and dissipating in the air. I was able to breathe more easily than I had in a long time. I signalled to the bird and whispered, “Thank you. I am well.”